The suddenly surging Buffalo Sabres have inched their way back into playoff race with 8-3-1 run

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Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (1) and right wing Alex Tuch (89) celebrate after an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders, Thursday, March 14, 2024, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Someone evidently forgot to inform Dylan Cozens and the Buffalo Sabres they were considered counted out of playoff contention when falling 12 points out of the race a month ago.

Then again, Cozens wouldn’t have accepted the notion even if someone had.

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“Our belief is higher than ever right now,” Cozens said after scoring in a 4-0 win over the New York Islanders on Thursday night. “I think I said it a month ago, maybe weeks ago, that we still believe in this room that we can do it. And that’s what we’re doing right now.”

From dropping to 13th place in the Eastern Conference standings — and sitting closer to last than eighth — following a 4-3 loss to Anaheim on Feb. 19, the Sabres are enjoying a remarkable resurgence. They’ve gone 8-3-1 since and closed to within three points of the Islanders and Detroit Red Wings in the race for the conference’s final wild-card spot.

Cozens said one difference is Sabres players feeling more loose after spending much of the first part of the season carrying the weight of expectations to end what stands as an NHL-record 13-season playoff drought.

“I think if we’re gonna go down, we’re gonna go down with a fight. We’re going to play like we honestly have nothing to lose,” he said. “We obviously know there’s a lot to lose, but we can’t talk about that when we’re out on the ice.”

Suddenly, the shortcomings — slow starts, a three-goalie rotation, injuries and the inability to win more than two in a row — that swamped the Sabres over the first four months of the season appear to have been resolved.

And keep in mind, Buffalo’s last three wins, including a 3-2 shootout victory over Edmonton on Saturday, followed the team trading its captain, Kyle Okposo, to Florida, and trading it’s top scorer, center Casey Mittelstadt, to Colorado in a deal for offensive defenseman Bowen Byram.

“I think I’ll answer that one after we keep responding,” coach Don Granato said, when asked about his reshuffled roster. “We just have to keep responding so it’s on to the next game. ... But to this point, yes, I think the energy’s really good.”

Though the Sabres have yet to win four in a row, they’re enjoying their second 3-0 run in three weeks.

For a team that still struggles to score the opening goal, Buffalo has opened the scoring in each of its past two, including a four-goal first-period eruption in a 7-3 rout of Detroit on Tuesday.

And most significantly, the Sabres are riding a hot goalie in Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who has gone 16-8-1 with four shutouts and 45 goals allowed in his past 25 outings since claiming the starting job in late December.

“It’s enjoyable to watch because it’s been a build,” Granato said, in referring to both Luukkonen and rookie Devon Levi, who is now developing in the minors.

“It’s something we’ve been tactically building for, is we took two young goalies into this organization, Levi and Upie, and we’ve made a commitment to two young goalies to develop them at the NHL level and that’s not a common thing to do,” he added. “So, it’s a good feeling when you see them progress the way they did.”

There seemed nothing tactical about the plan when the Sabres opened the season banking on Levi to take over the reins, and with Luukkonen not getting his first start until Levi and backup Eric Comrie sustained injuries. And Granato’s comments seem to deflect from the Sabres being second-guessed for carrying three goalies — and taking up a valuable roster spot — before finally demoting Levi to the minors in January.

Either way, Luukkonen is dominating in his second full NHL season, and after he struggled during Buffalo's late-season playoff push last year.

“It means a lot, kind of finding my footing in the net and kind of proving to myself, too, that I’m an NHL-caliber goalie and I can handle the starts,” Luukkonen said.

The key is maintaining focus.

“Once you kind of lose sight of the next game and start to think too far ahead, you really don’t do any favors for yourself,” he said. “I think it’s just kind of knowing what we’ve been doing right and trusting that.”

With 15 games remaining, the Sabres still have a hill to climb with the team embarking on a five-game road trip which opens at Detroit on Saturday.

Cozens recalled how the Sabres closed last season going 9-2-1 only to fall two points short of a playoff berth.

“We knew what we did last year and found a way to get close. And I think, last year, we kind of let the outside noise make us think we were out of it,” Cozens said. “And that’s something we’ve learned this year. Don’t worry about the outside noise, just just worry about this dressing room.”



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