"Pinch me, I'm dreaming."
Those are the words I texted to my mother (yes, I'm a mama's boy) after the Sabres trounced the Capitals 5-1 to take over possession of 8th place. I still feel like I'm dreaming.
A little over a month ago, the Sabres were toast. Dead. The season was basically over. We were 15th in the Eastern Conference, and I pretty much assumed we'd be picking top five in the draft.
I was looking at NHL mock drafts and prospect profiles for God's sake! I was ready to swallow the bitter pill and enjoy the season for what it was. Whatever happened happened. Then, on a mild February afternoon, the Sabres dismantled the seemingly unstoppable Penguins, 6-2. "That was fun," I thought. I hate the Penguins because of all the hype they get, and I love beating them no matter where we are in the standings.
I felt like that would be the way for the rest of the season: plenty of losses with the occasional fun game.
I prepared myself for the ride through Hockey Hell.
Little did I know that that was the start of something. The Sabres won two more games that week. I just thought, "Oh good, here's one of the fun parts," and I enjoyed it for what it was. Then the Sabres flew out to the west coast and Ryan Miller played out of his mind, recording back-to-back shutouts. The Sabres added to Miller's amazing play by dominating the then league-leading Canucks, 5-3.
From that point on, I hopped right back on the bandwagon and declared, "Driver! To the playoffs!"
The Winnipeg loss (or the first battle for 8th) hurt, and I was probably a little over-the-top in thinking that was the nail in the coffin. It felt like the bandwagon hit a spike strip. But that was not the case. It was merely a speed bump to where we are now. Besides a few more minor setbacks in the month of March, the Sabres became one of the hottest teams in the league. Now they're seemingly unstoppable.
Finally came the opportunity the team earned despite an abysmal start: a showdown with the Capitals for sole possession of the final playoff spot. It felt eerily similar to Game 6 last year, when current Sabre Ville Leino broke the hearts of Sabres fans by scoring the OT winner for the Flyers. There was opportunity in front of us, and given our track record, there was a feeling there might be a let down. Whether it be by our own doing or just our bad luck, the potential for failure was there.
Then something different happened. The Sabres won and won big. They kept their foot on the clutch on and drove over the Capitals. The defining moment was, of course, the shorthanded goal Captain Pominvilled earned by embarrassing the player once considered to be the best in the world.
Now here are the Sabres, in the driver's seat and riding towards the playoffs with guns blazing.
I can spit out all those stats about points, wins, goals, save percentages from this five-game winning streak. This run is about so much more than that. This is about Pominville's leadership and Ryan Miller being a game changer. It feels different than last years playoff push. This is the team we were promised at the start of the year.
Sure, Leino is still struggling, but the talent is finally showing itself. The wins are piling up, as are the points. Lindy ISN'T shuffling his lines for a change and everybody is clicking. Even Derek Roy is moving his feet and making important contributions on the penalty kill. Everything is finally coming together. Now all these thoughts are running through my head. Is this for real? Were the injuries actually that big of a factor? Were Pominville's All-Star Game non-comments a leadership tactic?
I had to watch the highlights from the last three games over and over again just to make sure I wasn't dreaming. Hell, I thought I was still dreaming the morning after the Washington game until I lost on Roll Up the Rim at Tim Horton's. Then it was back to reality. The good news is, the Sabres still won in reality. They're still in 8th place in reality. I like this reality.
Ryan Miller said in a recent interview that he thinks preseason hype hurt the team because they were trying to achieve the big goal without taking the necessary steps. He's right. Good teams don't just happen overnight (and, no, the Panthers are not a good team). Good teams take time to develop, and I think we're seeing this Sabres team develop into a good one.
That's what makes this run different from last year. Last year it was still the raggedy underdogs almost overthrowing the top seed. This year, although being cast into the "raggedy underdog" role, the Sabres are a scary team. We've beaten the Rangers, Penguins, and Canucks, all considered contenders, in a convincing fashion. We have the talent, we have a leader, we have scoring depth and it feels like they've won every game this month. It feels like not only will the Sabres make the playoffs, but they'll also be able to do some damage.
The Sabres this year, for me, have been just like this city has been my whole life. I've accepted them and cheered for them no matter what. Whatever spin I had to put on things, I was behind the team. Was it healthy? Probably not, but this most recent turnaround has made me realize how much I truly love this team and the city.
For every person that vowed they would never watch the team again, I found the same number of people willing to just enjoy the ride that was the season. These are the people who high-fived me at the F'N Center, even if they didn't know who I was. The folks who cheered me on as I threw myself into the Independent Health ad right outside of section 309 in celebration of a victory, no matter how bleak things seemed. These are the same people who were just as moved by Rick Jeanneret's "We Live Hockey" video as I was, the people that know you have to "ride the high wave and take the low wave." These are the people that make me love Buffalo.
Now the Sabres have surprised the diehards and the fair-weather fans and have the chance to make history.
I'm not gonna do anything crazy like guarantee they'll win the Cup, but there's potential to make a run and statement. I have hope, not just for today but for the future. The Sabres have paid their dues and now they know what it takes to win and how to grind out games against the best and bad teams they should be beating. There are still some games left, with some challenging opponents ahead. There are still no promises the Sabres will be playing come April 11th, but it sure feels like they will. And, as history has shown, anything can happen once the playoffs start.
Let's go Buffalo.
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