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Storylines To Watch As The Season Winds Down

March 26, 2023, 9:04 PM ET [1261 Comments]
Hank Balling
Buffalo Sabres Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Only two games remain in March for a Sabres squad that has amassed a 3-6-2 record so far this month. It’s fair to say that opportunities were missed, and subsequently, this team is very, very unlikely to have a realistic shot at the playoffs.

That said, there aren’t many fans who still have it in them to cheer for losses and a slightly better chance at likely first overall pick Connor Bedard. Buffalo currently has the 13th best odds to win the lottery at 2.5% percent, according to tankathon.com, and there’s not a meaningful increase in the odds unless the Sabres were to fall precipitously down the board to 4th or 5th worst in the league. Even if they did, 4th place Anaheim only has a 9.5% chance to win the lottery and the rights to Vancouver’s pride and prodigy. It’s hardly worth rooting for a horrible collapse just to get a meager 7 percentage point increase in the odds.

It's also hard to be anything close to reasonably excited about a potential playoff spot when the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins – the two teams currently occupying the wildcard spots in the Eastern Conference – are on a 92-point pace, and the Florida Panthers are right behind them with an 88-point-pace. The Sabres, meanwhile are on an 86-point-pace, or 87 if we’re feeling generous and want to round up.

For the Sabres to hit 93 points (the current playoff points percentage to beat the Islanders), the Sabres would need to go 8-1-1 over their final 10 games.

That ain’t happening.

It’s fair to say that the Sabres are in a weird spot; they’re not good enough to pull off a Darcy-brand “heroic march to 8th” and they’re not bad enough to stake a claim to a high draft pick. We’re existing in a netherworld of meaningless hockey. Still, there are some interesting storylines to watch, and with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of them as the season approaches its end:

- I’m trying to find out if another NHL team has ever carried four goalies on the roster at the same time – not counting the Covid taxi squad days – and according to the internet, well, I’m not sure. Carrying three goalies is an anomaly in the NHL. Carrying four goalies seems to be unheard of. The Sabres, of course are doing that with Craig Anderson, Eric Comrie, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Devon Levi

- Speaking of Levi: He has to rank as the premier reason to tune into games the rest of the way. The accolades speak for themselves: he is the 2023 Hockey East Player of the Year, a two-time reigning Hockey East Goaltending Champion, a Beanpot Tournament MVP and Eberly Award winner for the goaltender with the highest save percentage, the reining Mike Richter Award Winner as the NCAA’s best college goaltender, and he’s a finalist to repeat that again this year. None of those even account for his amateur accolades with team Canada, but you get the gist: this guy is hyped as the next coming of (Canadian) Ryan Miller for a reason.

- Let’s see Tage Thompson score 50 goals. My favorite player of the back-to-back conference appearance teams was always Thomas Vanek, mostly because I loved watching the effortlessness with which he played hockey (this is also not-so-coincidentally why Vanek tended to annoy a certain percentage of the fanbase) and Thompson has a lot of that in him. When he’s healthy and on his game, the big guy plays such a silky smooth game that he makes ridiculously hard plays look stupidly simple. By all accounts, he is not healthy and he’s been nursing some kind of lagging injury that nearly kept him out of Saturday’s contest against the Islanders, although he was able to receive some last-minute treatment and gut that one out. He only needs 6 goals in 10 games to hit the 50-spot. It’s doable.

- Last Dance? The Sabres have a trio of unrestricted free agent veterans who may or may not stick around the organization after this season: Zemgus Girgensons, Kyle Okposo and Craig Anderson. I formulated that sentence in a particular way to reference the organization rather than the team because it would be easy to see Okposo stick around in an advisory capacity of some kind. Likewise, the Sabres may look to replace current goalie coach Mike Bales due to, well, the bad goaltending, and it would be a natural fit for Anderson to jump into that role. He’s a student of the game and has successfully transitioned his style as goaltending has evolved over his 20+ years in the game; he knows how to manipulate shooters by switching from stand-up goaltending to butterfly and he’ll even throw an old-school double padstack in there for good measure. Girgensons, meanwhile, still has plenty of hockey left in him, and it’ll be up to him and the Sabres to determine whether that hockey will be played in Western New York or somewhere else.

- Mittelstadt’s audition: Casey Mittelstadt has 43 points on the season and he’s currently under contract next year for $2.5 million, before he’s schedule to become a restricted free agent in 2024. Mittelstadt has a pass-first mentality that one would think is best suited to center, but that’s unlikely to come to fruition in Buffalo where he’s blocked by the likes of Thompson and Dylan Cozens. Mittelstadt could be a hot trade commodity this summer if he hits 50 points. Teams absolutely will be interested in his low-cost contract and RFA status this summer. It could help the Sabres land a desperately needed top-four defenseman.

Let me know your must-watch storylines in the comment section. As always, thanks for reading.
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