No matter what happens against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night, the Buffalo Sabres will finish January with a winning record. It wasn't a perfect month, but it was a step in the right direction.
Since flipping the calendar into 2017 the Sabres have averaged 3.33 goals per game. Going back further, in Buffalo's last 27 games the team has averaged 2.93 goals per game, more than a goal per game better than they averaged in the first 21 contests of the season.
That Jack Eichel kid is pretty good, eh?
The Sabres, however, are still on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff chase and will need to leapfrog several teams in the last three months of the season. I don't love their chances, but at the same time, I don't think a playoff push is impossible.
One big obstacle the Sabres will have to deal with down the stretch: their 11 back-to-back games left on the schedule. Buffalo has 34 remaining games, so almost a third of their games from here on out will be played on short rest.
For some perspective, the Sabres have played eight back-to-back games in the first four months of the season. Buffalo's 19 back-to-back games are the most in the National Hockey League.
Let's look at the numbers, shall we?
As of Monday, Jan. 30 the Sabres are seven points out of the final wild-card spot, currently held by the Philadelphia Flyers. However, Buffalo has played two fewer games.
In the Atlantic Division, the Sabres are also seven points behind the Boston Bruins (56 points, 52 games played) and nine points behind the Ottawa Senators (58 points, 47 games played).
Essentially, the Sabres (49 points) along with the Toronto Maple Leafs (55 points), Florida Panthers (52 points), Tampa Bay Lightning (50 points) and Detroit Red Wings (49 points) are fighting for two division playoff spots and possibly one wild card spot.
While not impossible, I can't see an aforementioned team catching the Canadiens (first place in Atlantic, 65 points) or the New York Rangers (first wild card spot, 63 points).
That leaves three 'realistic' playoff spots as possibilities for the Sabres.
When you add the teams from the Metropolitan division into the mix things get really messy. Basically, every team in the Eastern Conference has a chance at a playoff spot -- so the Sabres best opportunity will come within the division.
Toronto has looked very good lately, so they'll likely be a team competing for one of the Atlantic spots. Ottawa has also played very well, with a 6-2-2 record in their last ten games. To secure a division playoff spot Buffalo will not only have to pass the teams ahead of them, but they'll also have to pass either the Maple Leafs or the Senators.
The good news: Buffalo has two games left against Ottawa and three games remaining against Toronto.
The bad news: Both teams have a game in hand and a pretty sizable points lead.
Moral of the story -- the Sabres had a nice January, but they'll need an even better February if they're going to make up any ground. Fortunately, the Sabres have nine home games next month at KeyBank Center, where they sport an 11-8-3 record.
It's not going to be an easy road, but the Sabres are still very much in the mix.