The difference a year makes for Sabres

TORONTO -- It struck me on Tuesday in the visitors dressing room at Air Canada Centre just how interesting things have worked out this season for two particular teams in the Eastern Conference.

Just 12 months later, the roles have been reversed for the Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres in the last month of the regular season.

Last season, the Flyers needed to play survival hockey the entire second half to get into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, but that focus and mental edge propelled them to a Stanley Cup finals berth. This year, the Flyers have meandered through March, winning five of 13 games (5-4-4), seemingly just waiting for the playoffs to start, the lack of urgency possibly posing a threat to their A-game.

Last season at this time, the Sabres were cooling their heels at the top of the Northeast Division, waiting for the playoffs to start. This season, the Sabres had to dig their way out of a hole to finally get back into a playoff spot, and only just this week is there seemingly any breathing room. As a result, the Sabres have their A-game firing on all cylinders.

"Last year we didn't have to grind quite as hard as some of those teams, and we did have some things that popped up in the second half that become problems," star Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said Tuesday after the morning skate. "We didn't have a good record in the second half last year. We cooled off at the end [lost four of last six regular-season games]. We kind of got into the playoffs; things were OK. We probably could have mustered the game we needed, but it's hard to just will it, hit the light switch and hope it happens.

"You want to be playing that kind of game consistently all throughout the season. Right now, we know what we have to do, and it comes out in our execution."

Three weeks ago in the same dressing room here in Toronto, the Flyers were using some of the same words.

"When you let it slip, you don't just flip the switch back on and say, 'OK, we're back.' It's a process," Daniel Briere told ESPN.com on March 10. "I think it's good we had it with some spare time before the playoffs so we can rectify the problem."

The question now is whether the Flyers will indeed iron all their issues out before the puck drops in mid-April and avoid Buffalo's first-round upset loss of a year ago. My guess is yes, the Flyers will be fine, but we'll see.

Meanwhile, can the Sabres duplicate Philadelphia's recipe from a year ago and use a red-hot second half to produce a deep playoff run as a low seed? Who the heck would want to play a Sabres team that's gone 23-10-5 since Jan. 1?

It starts with the guy in goal, of course. Miller has produced his best netminding of the season in the past month. He won't win another Vezina Trophy this season, but he's red-hot entering the playoffs, going 7-3-2 in March with a 2.25 goals-against average before Tuesday night's game against Toronto.

"I'm just trying to be sharp like everybody else in this room," said Miller, the NHL's first star for last week after going 3-0-0 with two shutouts. "Our team has been sharp. A goaltender really complements his team, and a team really complements his goaltender. When the guys make my reads easier, it's going to make me look good. We're playing good hockey."

It took a while. The blue line underwent some changes this past summer with top-four mainstays Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman leaving via free agency. Jordan Leopold (currently injured) and Shaone Morrisonn were brought in via free agency to help replace them, and 24-year-old Andrej Sekera, in particular, has really taken on a bigger role this season. But the changes on the back end took some adjustment, and as Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff explained to reporters Tuesday morning, the Sabres have transformed themselves into a blue-line corps that's more mobile, that jumps into the attack and that keys the transition game a lot more. But that transformation came with growing pains in the first half of the season.

"Early on we had guys in different roles and different situations," Miller said. "We had to find the right kind of system we could work with every night. I think it's good we stuck with that process and found something that worked. Lindy is right, we have a D that moves their feet, they aren't the kind of guys that are going to stick around our net and just be a physical presence. They move their feet, they get up ice, when we're playing strong hockey it's about gap and neutral zone and the ability to move your feet. It's about eliminating space with your footwork rather than clogging it up and outmuscling guys. I think it's good."

Tyler Myers, last season's Calder Trophy winner, also has recovered from a disappointing first half and is currently playing his best hockey of the season on defense.

All in all, it adds up to a Sabres team that is peaking just at the right time.