Back in late November, the Buffalo Sabres lead the entire NHL in points. Now they wouldn’t even have a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they began as of late Saturday night.
Things can change with 37+ games left in the season for these teams, but it’s increasingly looking like there will be a three-team race for two East wild-card spots between the Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, and New York Islanders.
(Again, the Bruins, Penguins, and Blue Jackets rank among teams in the top three spots of their divisions who could conceivably slip, while perhaps the Panthers or Hurricanes could go on a wild run.)
Here’s how the bubble wrapped on a busy Saturday:
Montreal Canadiens climb to first wild-card spot: 24-17-5, 53 points, 46 games played, 22 regulation/overtime wins.
After losing three of their last four games, the Habs shut down the struggling Avalanche 3-0 on Saturday.
All three of Montreal’s goals came in the third period of that tight contest, with the last being an empty-netter. Brett Kulak‘s shorthanded goal ended up being the game-winner, while Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored an emphatic 2-0 tally.
Carey Price pitched a 28-save shutout at home in this one.
Schedule note: Over the next three games, Montreal will rotate home and away contests. After that, they’ll have a great opportunity to solidify their place as a playoff contender, as they’ll enjoy a seven-game homestand from Jan. 19 – Feb. 9.
New York Islanders lose, stay in second WC: 24-15-4, 52 points, 43 GP, 22 ROW.
Islanders fans probably aren’t happy today, as their team lost in regulation to the hated Rangers.
The bigger picture looks quite sunny, though. In fact, considering their games in hand, it’s quite possible that the Islanders could finish in the Metro’s top three, and maybe even grab home-ice for the first round. To sweeten the deal, consider that they’ve played 20 home games versus 23 on the road, so it’s mostly coming up Trotz-house.
Schedule note: This loss starts a four-game homestand on a tough note, but they’ll get a chance – and a challenge – in closing off a back-to-back by hosting the Lightning on Sunday.
Buffalo Sabres fall to ninth place: 23-16-6, 52 points, 45 GP, 20 ROW
Buffalo’s lost three of four and only won three times in their last 10 games (3-6-1 during that stretch). While they have the same 52 standings points as Montreal, the Canadiens hold two more games in hand and two ROW.
It’s not time to panic, especially since Buffalo has a game in hand on Montreal. That said, with Montreal nearing a slate of home games fairly soon, Buffalo’s readying for quite the opposite, in the short term.
Schedule note: The Sabres are going to need to dig deep, as they’re set to being a five-game road trip on Monday.
The key will be to keep their heads high, even if that does go badly, because they’ll begin February with a seven-game homestand. Considering how all-or-nothing their schedule is, don’t be surprised if Buffalo’s streaky for the next month.
Again, there are other changes that could come to these East playoff races, but if it comes down to the Sabres, Islanders, and Canadiens jockeying for two spots, it could be very interesting to watch. The see-saw effect could be especially profound for Montreal and Buffalo, but we’ll see.
Overall, the Sabres have to hope that things go differently than they did on Saturday, but the Habs certainly wouldn’t mind.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.