NEW YORK — The climb in front of the Buffalo Sabres as the calendar turns to 2018 is a daunting one. Currently 16 points out of a playoff spot, playing any hockey beyond game No. 82 in April is unlikely, but as they prepare for the Citi Field Winter Classic game against the New York Rangers, the players are looking at it as an opportunity.
Playoff hopes may be lost, but after a very tough first half the Sabres have shown some signs of life. They’re still dead last in the Eastern Conference, but head coach Phil Housley’s message is sinking in and beginning to pay off.
“If you look at our games recently in the last two weeks we’ve played solid hockey, especially against really good competition, teams in playoff positions,” Housley said Sunday morning after the Sabres practiced at Citi Field. “I think our team is moving in the right direction, but certainly having this opportunity on the world stage can hopefully give our team a boost because we have been playing better as of late. Obviously, we’d like to be in a better position at this point in the season, but it is what it is and we’re going to try to bring our best [Monday] against a very good hockey team and another team that in a playoff position.
The final 44 games of the season will prove to be a vital evaluation period for Housley and general manager Jason Botterill. As the Sabres eye a top lottery selection in June’s entry draft, there are a number of pending unrestricted free agents who could end up as trade bait before the Feb. 26 deadline. That bait could bring in assets that will help the franchise’s turnaround over the next several seasons.
Evander Kane, who’s tied for the team lead in goals with 15 and is second on the Sabres in points with 34, is set to become a UFA on July 1. Same goes for forward Benoit Pouliot, defenseman Josh Gorges and backup goaltender Chad Johnson. Kane will most likely be gone by the end of February, but until then he’s be a part of the roster that would love to use a Winter Classic victory to jump-start a positive second half.
After a November that saw the Sabres win three of 13 games, they picked up 13 points in 14 games in December, which included five overtime defeats. Progress is there in Housley’s eyes and as January approaches — a month that features their bye week and the All-Star Break — the hope is that the climb continues to an uphill one.
“Any team is lucky to be part of something like this. I think we’ve been playing better,” said goaltender Robin Lehner. “It’s a good opportunity for us on a big stage to hopefully go out and get a win, keep the momentum going.”
More 2018 Winter Classic coverage:
• Sabres’ Jason Pominville ready for third outdoor game experience
• Mike Emrick on calling the first Winter Classic, his favorite outdoor game venues (PHT Q&A)
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.