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Sabres Complete Phase One Of “Operation: Stay Alive”

JJ Peterka celebrates a goal
Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

They said they couldn't do it! They said the Sabres' chances of making the playoffs were pretty much zilch. And ... well, OK, it's still a pretty unlikely outcome. But if you were a believer heading into Monday night, you received a thrilling gift courtesy of the NHL's most charming underdogs.

First, a quick refresher on how the playoffs looked before the Sabres took the ice against the Rangers. Six spots in the East were claimed, and the Panthers, Islanders, and Penguins—all with 80 games played—sat in 7-8-9 with 91, 91, and 90 points. Buffalo was the only other team mathematically still alive, a long shot with 78 games played and 85 points.

Pittsburgh was idle, but the other two important games went pretty solidly in the Sabres' favor. The Islanders should have had a chill evening against a Capitals team that had seemingly hung it up, but then they snoozed and losed. The Panthers, in a tougher matchup versus the Leafs, secured one point but lost the second when John Tavares squeezed out a breakaway goal in overtime.

But none of that would even matter to Buffalo if not for what went down at Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers came in with an outside shot at the top spot in the Metro division. The goalie they brought, Igor Shesterkin, loomed large over Sabres starter Devon Levi, whose college dominance and commercial-break Qui-Gon meditation quirk could not change that fact that he was making just his fifth career start.

The star-studded Ranger lineup, however, didn't do much to test Levi early, and his teammates helped him out with a goal before the first intermission, when a backhand pass by Jack Quinn on the red line opened up John-Jason Peterka for a tap-in. Artemi Panarin took control in the second period, tying things with a shot on a power-play fast break and then finishing from the same spot 10 minutes later on a humongous one-timer. It stayed 2-1 at the second break, though, thanks to Levi standing tall in the face of some revitalized Rangers aggression. (Igor wasn't half-bad himself, either.)

Eight minutes into the third, Buffalo's hard work paid off. As the Rangers clumsily moved the puck in their own zone, Alex Tuch made a predatory move to force a turnover. Tuch's shot from close range was stopped, but Casey Mittelstadt was right there to knock the rebound through. Put this clip in the International Museum Of Forechecking:

“We kept battling and battling and found a way to win," Mittelstadt said after the game. ”We're just going to keep playing hard, stick together and keep going."

You're goddamn right! But their work wasn't done yet. Nobody scored for the rest of the third, and even with a Sabres power play in OT the game remained deadlocked. That brought things to a shootout that seemed to clearly favor New York. Even in a vacuum, the goalie matchup looked intimidating, but Levi also had to contend with an all-star trio of shooters: Patrick Kane, with 451 career goals; Mika Zibanejad, with 39 on the year; and Panarin, who'd already beat him twice.

Levi stopped all of them. Shesterkin stopped his three, too. Then Owen Power, the brilliant young D-man who'd never been in an NHL shootout before, burned Igor to score, and Vlad Tarasenko beat Levi to keep New York alive. Mittelstadt converted with a pretty move to his backhand in the top of the fifth. And then Kaapo Kakko, the 22-year-old Finnish winger who's yet to meet expectations in the Big Apple, couldn't properly navigate Levi's big stick and ended the game with his miss.

Goalie is the spot where the Sabres have been least secure all year, but in his five starts since arriving from Northeastern, the 21-year-old Levi is 4-1, and in all but a chaotic 7-6 victory over the Red Wings, he's given his skaters a reasonable number to hit. Whatever happens next, he's enjoying a pretty sweet start to his career.

“I’m having a blast," Levi said in the postgame. "I just have fun and try to stop pucks. The guys are awesome. I just did my job and came out with the win."

It's too bad that the schedule probably won't let him play more than one more game—at least in the regular season. The Sabres finish out their year with the second half of this Hudson River back-to-back on Tuesday against the Devils, then another two-parter on Thursday and Friday facing the Sens and Jackets. It's likely too much to ask Levi to handle that load, and so the Sabres will have to dip into their bag of shakier goalies (there are three) to see this through.

It'd be delusional to say the Sabres look playoff-bound. Winning their two games in hand wouldn't even be enough to vault them into eighth if Pittsburgh can beat a broken Chicago tonight, and the Islanders should (should!) have two more points coming their way if they can just beat the Canadiens at home in their last game on Wednesday. But this is the latest that the Sabres have played meaningful hockey in a long, long time, and a clutch win at MSG kept their hope alive for at least a little longer. I'm pulling for them to see this miracle through.

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