BUFFALO, N.Y. — Thanks to the Wild, if the season ended today, the Buffalo Sabres would make the playoffs.
With a 3-1 victory over Minnesota at First Niagara Center on Saturday night, the Sabres moved into the top eight in the Eastern Conference for the first time since Dec. 19.
That's two days after the Wild fell from the tippy-top of the NHL standings, meaning the Sabres' upswing has been about as astonishing as the Wild's downswing.
On Jan. 23, the Sabres were 21 points behind Boston in the Northeast Division. They're now five points back. On Feb. 17, they were last in the East. But in the past 28 games, they're 18-5-5 and Saturday leaped over Washington, the Wild's Sunday opponent, into the playoff bubble.
The Wild, on the other hand, is nearing mathematical postseason elimination in the West for a fourth consecutive season and sixth time in eight seasons after going 11-26-7 since Dec. 13.
"They're playing really good hockey. They're playing desperate," Wild defenseman Tom Gilbert said of the Sabres. "It's do or die. If they lose a game, they could be out of the playoffs. We wanted to be a good spoiler for them.
"Washington's in the exact same spot, so we have to be little better in trying to beat another team going for a playoff spot."
The Wild will have to do that without center Matt Cullen, who might be lost for the season after saying he broke his right index finger when struck by a Christian Ehrhoff shot with 4 1/2 minutes left. The Wild will recall forward Chad Rau on Sunday.
After the first period Saturday, the Wild looked well on its way to winning a third consecutive game for the first time since winning seven in a row from Nov. 28-Dec. 10 (aka precursor to the wheels falling off this season).
It forced turnovers, attacked with speed, got pucks deep, made tape-to-tape passes, shot from everywhere and jumped out to a 1-0 lead when Steve Kampfer buried Kyle Brodziak's pass off a 2-on-1.
But, Brodziak said, "When the execution started going south, it definitely gave them the momentum."
The Wild took 16 shots in the first -- nine in the first 6:51. It would take nine in the final two periods -- the lowest total Buffalo's allowed in the final 40 minutes this season.
The Sabres looked like a different team immediately to start the second and tied the score after Nate Prosser's turnover when three forwards crashed the net and Thomas Vanek scored on a rebound 72 seconds in.
"They were trying to cram three guys down low and get in on the forecheck," Kampfer said. "That's the strength of their team. Their guys are gritty. They want to get down low. It was a challenge for the D to box them out.
"It's probably the first time I've seen three guys below the top of the circles like that consistently."
Josh Harding made 16 saves in the period to help the Wild escape 1-1, but Darroll Powe held ex-Flyers teammate Ville Leino 53 seconds into the third and Marcus Foligno deflected Tyler Myers' shot on the power play. Cody Hodgson later scored a buzzer-beating empty-netter.
"We weren't willing to stay with our game," coach Mike Yeo said. "... This is where you have one, two bad shifts in a row, you need somebody to go out there and set it straight."