As the Minnesota Wild and Buffalo Sabres prepare to wrap up their season series, the playoff hopes of the two clubs are trending in different directions.
The Wild will face the Sabres at Buffalo’s KeyBank Center on Tuesday. The western New York stop is the first of three road games in four contests this week for Minnesota, which ends with meetings at the New Jersey Devils on Saturday and against the New York Islanders in Brooklyn on Sunday.
Minnesota has points in five of its last seven games (4-2-1) and slots into the first wild card spot ahead of the Vancouver Canucks. Even Saturday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks left the Wild relishing the point earned after battling back late to send it to the 3-on-3 extra period.
“I wish we could’ve cashed in a lot more. The looks were definitely there,” said Wild left wing Zach Parise, who has recorded 20 goals and 25 assists in 51 games.
Minnesota placed forward Pontus Aberg (lower body) on injured reserve on Sunday, and he could play as early as the Islanders game. The Wild also called up forwards Luke Kunin and Kyle Rau from AHL affiliate Iowa and sent down forward J.T. Brown and defenseman Nate Prosser on Monday.
Buffalo won the first meeting between the two teams in St. Paul on Nov. 17. The Sabres rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the first period to claim a 3-2 victory after Jason Pominville scored the game-winner with 90 seconds left, lifting the then-streaking club to its fifth of 10 straight wins.
However, times have changed since then, and the Eastern Conference team’s game began to slip a bit as the NHL’s calendar headed to 2019.
Buffalo was the top team in the NHL with a 3-2 shootout win in Detroit against the Red Wings on Nov. 24. The victory moved the Sabres to the top point spot in the league standings for the first time after the first week of the season since Oct. 23, 2008.
But part of December and most all of January have been cold and bitter to coach Phil Housley’s squad. The team has won just five times in its last 17 matches, posting a 5-11-1 mark that booted Buffalo outside both the top three in the division and the wild card spots.
In fact, the Sabres’ 4-7-0 January places them in the awful position as the first team out of the current playoff standings, tied with Carolina with 56 points but having a game in hand over the surprising young Hurricanes.
Buffalo’s last two games have showcased the team’s inconsistency. Goalie Linus Ullmark allowed just Jamie Benn’s goal on the Dallas Stars’ 27 shots in a 1-0 loss last Wednesday. Yet the defense and Carter Hutton yielded four goals on Chicago’s first 22 shots in a 7-3 blowout home loss two nights later.
Back in his hometown of Buffalo, Chicago’s Patrick Kane torched the Sabres for two goals and two assists, eclipsing the 900-point threshold for his career. His four-point night deprived Buffalo of valuable home points.
“The learning experiences are far over now,” Buffalo captain Jack Eichel said. “We’re 50-some-odd games into the season. Mistakes are costing us points, and that’s points in the standings that we can’t lose.”
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