Eastern Conference Mediocrity Could Turn Playoff Dreams Into Reality For Sabres, Lightning

BUFFALO, NY - NOVEMBER 26: Luke Adam #72 of the Buffalo Sabres skates up ice after breaking away from Marcus Johansson #90 of the Washington Capitals during their NHL game at First Niagara Center on Nov. 26, 2011, in Buffalo, N.Y. (Photo by Dave Sandford Getty Images)

One week after selling at the trade deadline, the Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning each have legitimate shots at the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They deserve credit, but they wouldn't be able to stage such comebacks without help from above.

Two weeks ago, as we prepared for the NHL Trade Deadline, the Buffalo Sabres, truthfully and honestly, seemed to believe that they were in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

They sat in 14th place on that day, and while they were only seven points behind eighth-place Toronto, the prospect of jumping five teams just to reach the No. 9 spot was ... well, a stretch. A stretch that made me call the Sabres "delusional" for thinking they were still in it. Wait, no. The phrase was "completely delusional." Yep.

I'd probably still say the exact same thing if I could go back and write that again, even though the NHL standings look like this just two weeks later:

Eastern Conference Playoff Picture
GP
W-L-OT
Pts
8. Winnipeg Jets 66 31-27-8 70
9. Washington Capitals 65 32-28-5 69
10. Tampa Bay Lightning 65 31-28-6 68
11. Buffalo Sabres 65 30-27-8 68
12. Toronto Maple Leafs 65 30-28-7 67
13. New York Islanders 66 28-29-9 65
14. Carolina Hurricanes 65 24-27-14 62
15. Montreal Canadiens 66 25-31-10 60

There are Terry Pegula's favorite underachievers, making a run at the No. 8 playoff spot. At this point, "completely delusional" has turned to "completely realistic," considering the recent struggles of the Washington Capitals and Monday's head-to-head matchup between the Sabres and the eighth-place Winnipeg Jets.

Eight days after selling Paul Gaustad and Zack Kassian at the 2012 NHL Trade Deadline, the Sabres could be literally in a playoff spot. It's possible. All they need to do is beat the Jets at MTS Centre on national television Monday. Crazier things have happened.

This all just goes to show how insane the race for the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot is. Six of the top seven are probably sealed up at this point, depending on what the Ottawa Senators do over the next month, but that Southeast Division race and the subsequent battle for the No. 8 spot are an awkward cluster of teams playing really, really great hockey and teams playing like they'd much rather hop on the golf course in April than play postseason hockey.

That's the formula for any type of dramatic late-season comeback. For every team that hopes to make a run at the playoffs against all odds, they need help. They need a willing partner to completely tank and provide the opportunity.

The Philadelphia Phillies came back from six games down with 18 games to play in 2007 to win baseball's National League East, but they couldn't have done it without the cooperation of the New York Mets. The Tampa Bay Rays won the 2011 American League Wild Card thanks to a historic collapse by the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series after a late season run and an NL Wild Card title served up by an Atlanta Braves collapse.

It's a little different in hockey this season, but it's the same basic idea: The Jets, Capitals, Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs have scuffled to the point where they've allowed teams like Buffalo and the Tampa Bay Lightning to play their way back into the race, and it's looking more and more like just one of those struggling teams -- whoever falls into the Southeast Division title -- will make the postseason.

The overwhelming mediocrity of teams in the lower half of the Eastern Conference has created a realistic opportunity for the Sabres and the Lightning to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, despite both teams selling at the deadline. Tampa's gone 7-2-0 since since Feb. 16, while the Sabres have gone 6-0-2 in that span.

They're taking advantage of the opportunity that's come their way, but it's worth noting that they wouldn't be able to do any of this without help from above. Luckily, for them, that help has been plentiful.

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