Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Tomas Kaberle, right, takes out Buffalo Sabres forward Jason Pominville, left, during second period NHL action on Thursday, April. 1, 2010 in Toronto. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
MONTREAL - Just making the playoffs is not enough for the Buffalo Sabres any more - they want no less than second place overall in the NHL Eastern Conference.
And the way they're playing, it is a clearly reachable goal.
"Our No. 1 goal now is to finish second, and we want to play well moving into the playoffs," veteran defenceman Craig Rivet said Saturday as the Sabres prepared to face the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre.
The runaway Washington Capitals have already clinched top spot in the conference but the Sabres, who missed the playoffs the last two seasons, are in a tight battle with Atlantic Division rivals New Jersey and Pittsburgh for second place heading into the final week of the regular season.
"It's really important for us," said the Sabres' goal-scoring leader Jason Pominville. "Our goal at the start of the year was top-8.
"Now that we have the opportunity to keep climbing, we want to be second. That's the goal we've set. To be able to get home ice advantage for (at least) two rounds is huge. You don't want to look too far ahead, but it would be nice."
The Sabres weren't horrible the past two seasons, missing the playoffs despite reaching the 90-point mark in both campaigns, but they've had that little extra this season that has made them look more like the thorough, two-way team they were in 2006-07, when they went to the conference final.
It has helped that goaltender Ryan Miller has been healthy. The veteran who took the U.S. team to overtime against Canada in the Olympic final, losing on a Sidney Crosby goal, has had a dominant season that will likely win him the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goalie and may even draw votes for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
"Ryan is having a career year," said Rivet. "He's as hard working and focused as any player I've played with."
Another who has stood tall - literally - is six-foot-eight defenceman Tyler Myers, a strong candidate for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Myers plays on Buffalo's top defence pair with Henrik Tallinder and is their top-scoring rearguard.
"Everybody knew he'd be good, they just weren't quite sure how good he would be," said Rivet. "It's a difficult position to be in as a young guy coming in at 19.
"You're under the spotlight, the mistakes you make are magnified. But right from Day 1, he's taken the reins. He's a big part of our defence. He's not only on our top pairing, he plays against the best lines every game. But what's impressive is his skating and his ability to get up ice and make plays."
Myers stands as more proof that one of Buffalo's main strengths is drafting talent. The team that struggles to keep stars once they become eligible for free agency has consistently replenished the pool with good young players.
Of late, two of their top offensive guns, Tim Connolly and Thomas Vanek, have been out with lower body injuries, only to see youngsters Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis step in and produce. The five-foot-six Gerbe was rookie of the year in the AHL last season, with Ennis threatening to match that feat this season.
"All these young guys who performed well in the minors all year are now playing key positions," said Rivet. "They're playing on the top two lines, getting minutes and power play time and they're producing. We're not missing a beat."
The Sabres lost their first two games after the Olympic break, then went on a 10-4-1 tear that put them in range of their new goal of second in the conference.
Making the playoffs is already assured, and now they look like they'll be hot going into the post-season.
"I don't think we were too far off the other years," said Miller. "I think we lost some of that attention to detail the last two years, where the difference in a game becomes backcheck pressure or how good you are on the forecheck, and what opportunities you allow the other team to have.
"We've been a lot better about cleaning up our game and being more organized. We just have to keep playing that game going into the playoffs."