I know, I know. They're not in yet. By writing what I'm about to write, I'm opening myself up to ridicule if the Sabres fall short of the playoffs.
This season's Sabres are, in my opinion, one of the best stories in the NHL. An ownership change renewed the fans' faith. An injury to their leading scorer, Derek Roy, strangely marked a turning point in the team's fortunes -- for the better. A decline in the performance of the team's biggest star, Ryan Miller, from a Vezina Trophy-winning, Olympics MVP year. You figure it out.
If they're going to remain a top story, they'll need to win at least one round in the playoffs. Can they do that? As I've written, I think they can.
A month ago I thought there was a divide between the Philadelphia Flyers and the rest of the Eastern Conference teams. Now I'm not so sure of that. The Sabres beat the Flyers in their last meeting. Chris Pronger has had an injury-plagued year. Their goaltending makes their fans nervous. They're good, but I no longer consider them too good.
Washington? There is a ton of team there. They're big and of course very talented. But the Capitals have ghosts. They've lost three straight years on seventh games in their own building. No matter who they play in Round 1, fans all over hockey will be scrutinizing the Capitals.
To me, Boston is the best bet to win the East. But the matchups will matter. If they meet, Montreal would make Boston bleed to win. The Bruins should want Tampa Bay or the Rangers in Round 1 instead. For all the credit the Flyers get for their run last year, they were fortunate to play the three lowest-scoring teams in the tournament -- New Jersey, Boston and Montreal.
Pittsburgh is interesting -- certainly a team that will be tough to put down, and also a team that has dominated the Sabres. But like most fans, I don't see them as a Cup contender with their key injuries.
Where does this leave the Sabres? I think they can be a player. Their attacking defense makes them an unusual matchup for teams. They're deeper than the average playoff team, more balanced. I do think Thomas Vanek needs to stay healthy and be great for the Sabres to win. I'd give Buffalo a better chance of a first-round "upset" than I would Tampa Bay or the Rangers.
If Chris Pronger stays hobbled or the Capitals' ghosts come out, even better.