By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO — In less than 24 hours, the Sabres morphed from a postseason frontrunner to a likely bystander. Consecutive regulations losses can do that. An incredible nine-week run up the Eastern Conference possibly fell apart with one bad weekend.
Nonetheless, the ninth-place Sabres haven’t been eliminated yet. They still possess hope.
Three games remain, starting with tonight’s huge home finale against the hapless Maple Leafs, who downed them 4-3 on Saturday in Toronto.
The Sabres must win all three, right?
“I’d be stupid to think any other way,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Monday following practice inside the First Niagara Center.
The Sabres, who trail Washington by two points (88-86) with a game in hand, have little margin for error. It’ll be an arduous task securing their third straight playoff appearance.
While the Sabres can technically tie Washington tonight, the Capitals have the tiebreaker. Four more points and they clinch. They blew a glorious chance for at least one Monday, allowing the go-ahead goal with 1:02 left in a 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Sabres owned eighth place and controlled their fate until the Pittsburgh Penguins beat them 5-3 on Friday.
“We kind of let it slip,” Sabres defenseman Mike Weber said. “Now we’re kind of hoping on other teams to mess up. We’ve got to take care of our business. It’s a big week of hockey.”
Goalie Ryan Miller said the Sabres’ awful start this season “looms over us.”
“The room for error was small. We made the error,” he said. “We got to make up for that and give us the best chance to get in the postseason here. That’s win (tonight) and go from there.”
It won’t get any easier. The Sabres finish with road tilts against the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins, two conference heavyweights.
Ruff called the mood in the dressing room Monday “disappointed.” The Sabres roared into the weekend winners of five straight and riding a 19-5-5 run. They ended it on the outside, falling in the Leafs’ first home win in 54 days.
“When you’re running that high for that period of time … there’s disappointment,” Ruff said.
Playing without top defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Tyler Myers certainly hurts the Sabres’ slim chances.
Ehrhoff (knee) is out the rest of the regular season after colliding with Washington’s Troy Brouwer on Tuesday, Ruff said. The German doesn’t need surgery and could return if the Sabres make the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Myers, who hurt his foot blocking Paul Martin’s shot late Friday, could play this week. Myers sat Saturday and didn’t practice Monday.
Ehrhoff and Myers haven’t quite met their lofty expectations this season. Still, they’re often two dynamic, slick presences who eat up minutes.
“If you take two of your top defensemen out of any team in the league, you’re a different team,” Ruff said. “You can go to almost any team and that’s the case.”
They clearly missed them Saturday, when rookies T.J. Brennan and Brayden McNabb subbed.
“Losing two big bodies on our back end doesn’t help the situation. … You put the onus on other guys, especially guys that come up from the minors,” Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold said. “They come up, they play a different system, quickly they’re thrown right into the mix, and sometimes it’s a lot of fire.”
Losing to one the NHL’s worst teams Saturday stung the Sabres, who had dominated the Leafs for five seasons. The Sabres’ closest rival has turned the tables recently, winning three of the six meetings last season and three in 2011-12.
Even with a current 5-18-3 skid, the Leafs possess a dangerous attack that relies on their rush and power play, Miller said.
“It’s a risky game they tend to play,” Miller said. “It kind of works in their favor. They get opportunities. You just have to be a little bit smarter against them, frustrate them. I think that’s what other teams have been able to do. … We definitely need to take a different approach.”
The Sabres could be lamenting their missed opportunities and playing the “what-if” game soon.
What if they had beaten some of their tomato can opponents? In addition to their struggles against the Leafs, they fell twice to the New York Islanders, the conference’s 14th team. They lost once to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the NHL’s worst team.
What if they hadn’t lost 12 consecutive road games in regulation earlier this season? A point or two for simply reaching overtime could’ve dramatically changed the landscape.
“It plays in everyone’s mind,” Weber said. “You can’t change anything that’s happened in the past.”
Leopold’s not ready to “point the finger in the rearview mirror all day long.”
“We’ve battled to come back and put ourselves in a good position,” he said. “There’s no reason we can’t get six points here and finish the season strong.”
The Sabres could have some reinforcements tonight.
Weber, who was crunched against the boards by Matt Cooke on Friday, said he’s questionable after sitting Saturday.
Matt Ellis (knee, 10 games) is available tonight. The forward hasn’t played since catching his skate in a rut March 10 in Ottawa. Winger Nathan Gerbe (muscle pull, nine games) is close and will see how he feels after the morning skate.