AMHERST, N.Y. - Dressed in sweats and running shoes, Buffalo Sabres players were hardly noticed in working their way through the crowd of parents and children packing the hallways of a suburban ice rink complex before the team's brief workout Saturday.
It was an unusual experience for anyone not to take a second look at a group of athletes who, only a year earlier, had captivated this hockey-mad community by winning the NHL regular-season title. On this spring morning, a bigger stir was caused by a helium balloon that burst shortly after the Sabres' arrival.
That pop was appropriate considering the air has all but completely leaked out of the Sabres' playoff hopes a day after a 4-3 overtime loss to Montreal, in which they squandered a two-goal third-period lead for the second time in three games and dropped to the brink of playoff elimination entering the final week of the season.
"I think yesterday, the feeling was anger, everybody was kind of frustrated a little bit," captain Jason Pominville said. "Today, it's maybe a little more disappointment. ... Every time you lose those games, it makes it even tougher on ourselves."
The Sabres' chances got even tougher Saturday, when each of the three teams immediately ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings won their respective games. With four games left, starting with its home finale against Boston on Sunday, Buffalo sits in 10th, six points behind the Bruins, who hold the eighth and final playoff berth.
That means a loss - including in overtime or in a shootout - to Boston would eliminate the Sabres from contention.
"Until we're mathematically out of it, or we falter, it's, 'We have to move forward,"' goalie Ryan Miller said. "We need a little help, but we need to help ourselves. So our mind-set is to take care of business and see what happens."
The Sabres are in jeopardy of becoming only the third team since the NHL's expansion era began in 1967-68 to miss the playoffs a year after finishing first in the regular-season standings. The New York Rangers missed the playoffs in 1992-93, as did Montreal in 1969-70.
It would cap a dramatic fall for a Sabres franchise that won a league-best 105 games over the past two seasons and was both times eliminated in the East finals.
The Sabres have been undone by management decisions that led to the team losing both co-captains, Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, to free agency last summer. And Buffalo's core took yet another major hit last month when the team was forced to trade Brian Campbell to San Jose after failing to negotiate a new contract with the two-time All-Star defenceman.
Left in the wake was a young, patchwork squad. The Sabres, who didn't blow a two-goal lead once last season, have done it six times this year. They also fell to 12-18 in games decided by one goal after going 25-16 last year.
"You look at the past, we were able to shut down and play solid defence," Pominville said. "We've kind of slipped away from that, and it's cost us points lately. It's cost us games. And those points, we've needed."