Blue Jackets finish against playoff-bound Sabres
SABRES (42-29-10) at BLUE JACKETS (34-34-13)
TV: MSG-B (HD), FS-O (HD)
Buffalo 7-1-2; Columbus 1-6-3
Second and final meeting of the season. Buffalo claimed a 5-0 win on home ice on Dec. 3, with Tyler Ennis and Thomas Vanek each scoring a goal and setting up two others. Ryan Miller needed to make just 19 saves to record the shutout.
It wasn't how Buffalo started this season, but how it's finished. After struggling through much of the first half, the Sabres improved to 28-11-6 since late December and clinched a playoff berth with Friday's come-from-behind, 4-3 overtime victory over the Flyers.
Depending on how Saturday's action plays out, the Sabres could find themselves entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs as either the sixth or seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Buffalo is tied at 94 points with Montreal, which owns the tiebreaker and plays in Toronto. The Sabres must win and have the Habs lose, whether in regulation, overtime or a shootout, to pass them in the standings.
Trailing Philadelphia by a goal entering the third period, Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff decided the time was right to get his franchise goalie back into action. After missing four games due to an upper-body injury, Miller stopped all eight shots he faced in relief of Jhonas Enroth, and Nathan Gerbe scored his second goal of the game midway through the third to force overtime, which was actually all it took for the Sabres to clinch. Vanek then broke in alone during 4-on-4 action and beat Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky at 1:16 of the extra period to further send the HSBC Arena crowd into a frenzy.
"The guys wanted it bad tonight," said Vanek, who added two assists. "It was loud and it's exciting. We put a lot of work in and this one feels better than the other ones."
It's been a difficult end to the season for Columbus, which will miss the playoffs for a second straight season following the franchise's first-ever trip there in 2009. But if the Blue Jackets can find their way past the Sabres they can finish above .500 in points percentage. They're playing without captain Rick Nash
and were stymied by Vezina Trophy candidate Pekka Rinne in a 4-1 loss to the Predators, who also punched their postseason ticket on Friday.
"At the end of the day, we only scored one goal. He stopped us 44 times, and we lost another hockey game. We talked about trying to stop the bleeding in this rink and against this team," coach Scott Arniel said. "We did lots of good things but certainly not enough."
Vanek followed up a hat trick in the Sabres' victory over the Lightning on Tuesday with another three-point effort, adding a pair of assists to his OT winner against the Flyers. Drew Stafford has 4 goals and 5 assists in the last eight games. Tim Connolly has 2 goals and 6 assists in the last seven games.
Buffalo is hoping to have forwards Patrick Kaleta and Mike Grier back from knee injuries soon. Forward Jochen Hecht (upper body) and defenseman Jordan Leopold (hand) are out indefinitely. Forward Derek Roy, thought to be lost for the season after suffering a torn tendon in his left quadriceps muscle on Dec. 23, is targeting a return if the team advances past the first round. … Nash won't play for Columbus due to a back injury, while a fractured tibia has sidelined defenseman Kris Russell
The Sabres are 15-4-4 since ownership changed hands and Terry Pegula assumed control in late February. … The Blue Jackets have never lost to the Sabres at Nationwide Arena, with three wins and a tie in four all-time meetings.
Buffalo honored many of its past alumni prior to Friday's game and one of the more famous in the group, Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine, came away impressed by Gerbe and the effort he put forth on the game-tying goal. The 5-foot-5 forward came to a skidding stop in the right circle following a rush up ice, spun around and in one motion lifted a blind backhander at the net that somehow found its way through a crowd and just inside the left post.
"I don't know if it was the velocity, but it was the quickness with how he did it," LaFontaine said. "That was pretty special. That's a big goal."