After seeing their Stanley Cup playoff hopes dashed for a 12th straight season, the Buffalo Sabres play their final home game of the season on Thursday when they host the Ottawa Senators.
It’s the first game of a season-ending back-to-back for Buffalo (40-33-7, 87 points), which made a late sprint for an Eastern Conference wild-card spot with a 7-1-1 run before dropping a 6-2 decision to the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday.
Look no further than a poor home record (16-20-4) for a reason that the Sabres will once again miss the playoffs. Only the Columbus Blue Jackets (24-47-9, 57 points), who host Buffalo in the regular-season finale on Friday, have fewer home wins in the East (15-22-2).
Buffalo enters its final two games of the season already with 12 more points than it had in 2021-22 (32-39-11, 75 points). And that fact, combined with the late charge by a young and rebuilding team that is anchored by one of the league’s rising stars in Tage Thompson (team-leading 46 goals and 93 points), left reason for optimism moving forward.
“I can’t say enough about these guys and the way we continue to compete and the way that we figured out how we have to play to be successful,” captain Kyle Okposo said. “I’m extremely proud of this group, to see how far we’ve come. We’ve become a team. It started off the ice first and then slow progressed on the ice. It’s the first time in a long time I think we can say that about our squad here.”
Buffalo coach Don Granato said the Sabres took a big step forward with how they responded to the pressure of a playoff race.
“What we went through in the fight and the pressure was at a different level,” Granato said. “It pushed that group to grow and identify with details and situational awareness. Now they know they can play in the National Hockey League.
“There were moments within the regular season as specific as three weeks ago, we didn’t handle that adversity very well and that challenge very well. We filled our heads with a lot of self-doubt. We saw our way through it to the point where there’s greater clarity on the details and intensity that’s needed to move forward.”
Buffalo reached the 40-win mark for the first time since the 2010-11 season.
“We got through so many ups and downs, but we stuck together,” defenseman Rasmus Dahlin said. “We always came back stronger. We’ve taken the next step, for sure.”
Ottawa (39-35-7, 85 points) comes off impressive back-to-back wins over the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes.
Claude Giroux collected two goals and an assist in a 3-2 win over the Hurricanes on Monday to boost his point total to 1,001 in his career.
The 35-year-old Giroux is third on the team in both goals (34) and points (78). His goal total matches a career high set in 2017-18 with the Philadelphia Flyers.
“He’s had a heck of a year and he’s just a smart player,” Senators coach D.J. Smith said Monday. “He knows where to go to go find pucks, he knows how to make plays. He could have had six, seven points tonight, to be honest with you, if guys finished the passes that he gave them.”