Sabres battle back into East playoff race

After a season-long grind on the outside looking in, the Buffalo Sabres are finally sitting in a playoff spot even if it's only by a point.

Hey, they'll take it after what it took to get back on the right side of the ledger. The team dug itself into an early-season hole and needed five months to get out of it.

"It's a good feeling," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff told ESPN.com on Monday. "We've focused on trying to catch the teams ahead of us. Really since the start of January, our record [17-7-4] has allowed us to creep up. This is so tight, though. It hasn't been easy."

Why the turnaround? We suggested to the veteran coach that, from our vantage point, the improved second-half play of sophomore blueliner Tyler Myers was a big factor, as was the standout offensive performance from Drew Stafford.

"I think you kind of nailed it," Ruff said. "Another guy that hasn't got a lot of credit is Tyler Ennis. I think his play has been really good. He's a dangerous kid every time he touches the puck. His all-around play has been good."

The acquisition of winger Brad Boyes from St. Louis on the eve of the trade deadline is also paying off.

"That acquisition has made a difference," said Ruff. "He's got four points [in four games], he's in on a lot of good plays for us and given us more depth up front."

The breakout of Stafford and the addition of Boyes were "must" developments, especially after the huge loss of top offensive center Derek Roy [torn quad tendon] just before Christmas.

Star winger Thomas Vanek is providing his usual offense, leading the team with 55 points (23-32) in 65 games. But the Sabres have also needed improvement on the back end.

"Recently, I think our defense has played better," Ruff said. "It started with Myers. You look at the last four games, the play of [Andrej] Sekera has been fabulous. That's exactly what you need to win; you need different players to step up and be big players for you and we're getting some of that now."

Veteran blueliner Steve Montador has also been a rock (he leads Buffalo with a plus-20 rating), and reigning Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller is always a factor.

It's all added up to fun times in Buffalo. Weekend wins in Philadelphia and Minnesota gave the Sabres a 3-0-1 record so far on a critical seven-game trip, one that could decide their playoff fate.

"We headed off on the road knowing that these seven games are going to make a difference in the season," said Ruff. "We like our start, but we know that the game Tuesday night [at Pittsburgh] will be extremely tough. And once we get by that one, the one after that [Thursday night at Boston] isn't easy, either."

The trip wraps up Saturday night against divisional rival Toronto, never an easy two points. But this Sabres team has seemingly been inspired by new owner Terry Pegula -- Buffalo is 5-0-2 since his passionate and impressive opening news conference.

"Once he stepped up to the forefront, I think there was added energy," Ruff said. "I mean, how could you not look at it that way? You saw how excited he was and he's been around us every game, he's been on the road trip. I think that's had an effect."

There is only one way to reward the new boss for his investment: get into the playoffs.