Tonight, they aim to deal the Capitals’ playoff hopes a significant blow at Verizon Center. As you know by now, the teams are tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. And because Washington owns the tie breaker, it’s not a stretch to say Buffalo’s season will be on the line.
“We’re putting it together, finally, and that couldn’t happen at a better time with our playoff lives on the line,” winger Drew Stafford said after the morning skate at Verizon Center. “We’re playing the best hockey we have all year. For as long as I can remember, every game has been the most important game of the year, a ‘must win.’ Tonight is no different. We’re going to empty the tank.”
After a free-spending offseason, the Sabres were one of the league’s biggest disappointments around midseason. In fact, on Feb. 17 they sat at the bottom of the conference standings, 10 points out of a playoff position. Two days later, though, they began a 13-2-3 stretch that has vaulted them into the thick of the race.
They arrive in Washington having gained a point in eight straight (6-0-2) and are coming off a 3-1 win over Minnesota on Saturday.
Much of their success the past two weeks has been the result of a top forward line that’s been clicking. The unit of Marcus Foligno, Tyler Ennis and Stafford has scored a combined 15 goals and produced 34 points since Coach Lindy Ruff put the trio together after the Sabres’ last regulation loss on March 8.
“We were hoping they could provide some offense,” Ruff said. “But I don’t think anyone thought we’d get as much as we got.”
Stafford has four goals and eight assists the past seven games, a career-high for a seven-game segment.
“With Tyler’s speed and agility and Marcus’s size and strength in front, I just kind of hang out and wait for the puck and try and shoot,” Stafford said. “We’re trying to get a lot of pucks on net and get some bodies there and it’s been working out for us. We’re feeding off each other.”
The other key, of course, has been the surge of goalie Ryan Miller, who came off the ice first and is expected to start. On Monday, Miller was named the NHL’s second star of the week after posting a 4-0-0 record with a 1.26 goals against average and .956 save percentage.
Buffalo is also keenly aware of Alex Ovechkin’s recent turnaround and how he’s been carrying the Capitals. Ruff has been matching the line of Ville Leino, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville against opponents’ top units recently, but tonight Capitals Coach Dale Hunter will have the last change.
“He’s got one of the best shots in the league and his release is really good,” Pominville said. “He’s been on a roll for them, scoring in a lot of different ways. We have to make sure we’re aware when he’s on the ice and not turn anything over, because that’s what he thrives off.”
Ruff said of Ovechkin: “I think he’s shooting more and from a lot of different places. I think he’s caught some breaks, like the goal last game that went five-hole. I think when you shoot more, good things happen. I look it at as what he’s doing [and comparing it to] what Stafford is doing. Stafford is shooting more and shooting in some situations that he passed off, and more pucks are going in the net.”
One other note: Patrick Kaleta will return to the Sabres’ lineup after missing three games with an injured right thumb. Nathan Gerbe, however, will be sidelined for a seventh straight game with an upper-body ailment.
“We’ve pushed hard and Washington has played well,” Ruff said. “We know that this game has big implications one way or another. …We know we have to play well. We know that Ovechkin has been going well for them. We’ve got a job to do tonight.”
More on the Capitals:
— Braden Holtby to start in net for Caps
— Did The Post spark Ovechkin’s surge?
— Capitals enjoy playing in front of Holtby
— Ryan Miller, balanced offense lead Sabres push
— Hunter: Game vs. Sabres like Game 7
— Backstrom encouraged by Monday’s practice