Crazy Eights: Caps and Sabres Battle for East's Final Playoff Spot

Written by Brian McCormack on .


Shortly after midnight on September 29th, Evan Longoria laced an offering from Yankee reliever Scott Proctor into the left-field seats at Tropicana Field and launched the Rays into the postseason after climbing out of a 7-0 hole.

On April 11, 2010, Claude Giroux's shootout winner put the Philadelphia Flyers past the Rangers and into playoffs, leading to their Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

In week 15 of the 2010 NFL season, DeSean Jackson's walk-off punt return capped off a stunning comeback win for the Philadelphia Eagles, overcoming a 31-10 deficit in the fourth quarter to defeat the NY Giants, 38-31. The Eagles would win the NFC East, while the Giants' season was brought to an abrupt end.

A playoff run can quite often hinge on one play, one game, one statement. Perhaps last night in Buffalo we saw our statement moment, in an eighth place race that will almost certainly go down to the final day.

The Washington Capitals and the Buffalo Sabres have entertained us over the past couple of weeks with a tooth-and-nail battle only made more entertaining by the roller-coaster ride that both organizations have experienced over the last six months that in a way have paralleled each other. Both teams experienced controversy behind the bench, both with Washington's replacement of head coach Bruce Boudreau with Dale Hunter and with the speculation throughout much of December and January concerning the safety of Lindy Ruff's job behind the bench in Buffalo.

Both the Sabres and Caps also weathered the failing production of their best players through the majority of the season,  with sub-par campaigns from Alex Ovechkin in Washington and Ryan Miller in Buffalo. Both stars have bounced back when their team needed it most. Ovechkin has ten goals and 14 points in is last 14 games to once again place him within arm's reach of 40 goals for the sixth time in his career. Ryan Miller, whose name actually began to circulate in mid-season trade rumors, has been brilliant down the stretch, going 15-3-4 since February 17th and posting a GAA of 2.18 and a .923 save%

Neither team has been able to assert control of the eighth spot. After a dramatic win in Washington on March 27th, the Sabres had control of the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot. A home loss to Pittsburgh was followed by a very poor showing in Toronto, a 4-3 loss to a team that had won only three of their previous thirteen games. Washington responded with shootout wins over Boston and Montreal to retake eighth place. The Tampa Bay Lightning gave the Sabres life Monday when Steven Stamkos' 57th and 58th of the season in the final 62 seconds of regulation broke a tie and kept the Caps within Buffalo's reach.

Which brings us to last night. Buffalo's chance to not only stay in the race, but to establish the momentum of a team that is trending up, a team that will bust through a door that has been opened a crack, a team that has overcome an eleven point gap since February eighth to be banging on the door of the postseason in the National Hockey League. And they had the chance to do it, once again, against the Maple Leafs, a divisional rival, a regional rival, at First Niagara Center. No more motivation necessary.

Well... maybe they need a bit of a push.

The Leafs took a 3-0 lead to the the dressing room for the first intermission, throwing 13 shots at Ryan Miller. Not the start the Sabre had in mind.

The Sabres season relied on a memorable comeback. Memorable comebacks require heroes. Sometimes heroes come from unlikely places and, often, a little bit of controversy.

One of last night's heroes was defenseman Alexander Sulzer, whose two goals last night gave him three in 15 games as a Sabre, after scoring only once in 74 games with three teams dating back to 2008. Sulzer's second of the game, determined by video review as Leaf's goaltender Ben Scrivens' pad was pushed across the line, brought the Sabres within a goal at 5-4 with just over five minutes remaining.

With 2:07 remaining in the third period, Marcus Foligno beat a fallen Mike Komisarek to the corner off of an offensive zone face-off and forced the puck to the front of the net.

If the Sabres are to make a substantial run in the playoffs, one can already imagine the "History Will Be Made" commercial that the NHL could run for Jordan Leopold's tying goal, as the screen fades to gray and the world beckons, "What if the whistle had blown?"


Scrivens never appeared to have control of the puck and, wherever it was, Referee Mike Hasenfratz was in position,Where's the puck?! Leoplod ties it whistle in mouth, and seemed to have view of the loose puck (even though everyone in First Niagara Center seems to have seen it go in before he did).

In any event, Leopold's goal put the Sabres' playoff destiny back in their hands, and set the stage for redemption for another Sabre who would likely prefer to see the 2011-2012 season put in his rear-view mirror.

Derek Roy, who missed most of 2010-2011 with a torn quad, returned this season with a thud, with only eight goals at the beginning of February and finding his names in numerous trade rumors at the end of that month. Prior to last night , Roy had only one goal and five points in his previous 16 games.

But it was Derek Roy who came up with his second powerplay goal of the game, after Dion Phaneuf's delay of game penalty, to finish off the comeback in Buffalo and keep the Sabres playoff dream on track.


And so Buffalo took care of business when they needed it most. In doing so, they gave hockey fans across North America something just as valuable: four more games of desperation. The Sabres finish the season with two challenging road matches, traveling to Philadelphia on Thursday and to Boston on Saturday. The Capitals will host the Florida Panthers on Thursday, still in need of points to lock up the Southeast division, and then travel to New York on Saturday to take on the top-seeded Rangers.

(Could Washington catch Florida? Hint: If Washington and Buffalo win out and Florida loses out, the Sabres would hold the tie-breaker over the Panthers and Florida would be out... SO MANY SCENARIOS!)

The Caps' schedule is a tad more forgiving on paper than that of the Sabres. In addition, any combination of a Washington win and a Buffalo loss would clinch a playoff spot for the Capitals, as Buffalo would be unable to overcome the regulation/overtime tie-breaker, leaving a tumbling Florida as Buffalo's only hope.

Buffalo needs Washington to lose, while the Caps' destiny is purely in their own hands.

But how about the fans? What scenario does this set up for them?

Thursday night, the Caps will be featured on NHL Network while the Sabres play on their local MSG channel. Should both teams win or the Capitals lose, the stage will be set for major scoreboard watching on Saturday afternoon. The Sabres will face-off in Boston at 4 PM and will step off the ice just in time to see the Caps take on the East-leading Rangers at 6:30 on NBC Sports.

What can a hockey fan hope for? Two Sabre wins and a Capital loss leading into Saturday night, would set the stage for a "win or go home" atmosphere at a raucous Madison Square Garden on the last day of the season, with the Rangers in full control of their first-round opponent, a world-stage set for Alex Ovechkin, and an opportunity for one of two different Cinderella come-back seasons to be fulfilled with a playoff birth.

A Cinderella story capped off by heroic performances, by memorable controversy? Maybe, just maybe, "history will be made."

And all this just an opening act for the greatest time of year.


@BrianJMcCormack Love this blog post! Well done.

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