Finishing atop the Eastern Conference seemed like a mere formality for the Philadelphia Flyers just 10 days ago. After four straight losses, winning the Atlantic Division isn't even a given.
The Flyers try to get back on track Friday night in Buffalo, but that won't be easy against a Sabres team that can clinch a playoff berth with a win -- and perhaps set up a first-round matchup with Philadelphia.
The Flyers (46-23-11) won 5-2 at Pittsburgh on March 29, taking a four-point lead with a game in hand in the Atlantic over the Penguins.
Philadelphia also had a three-point cushion and a game in hand on Washington for the East's No. 1 seed, but one rough week has virtually assured it won't get the top spot -- and may not even win the division. Tuesday's 5-2 loss at Ottawa dropped the Flyers to 0-3-1 in their last four games, while Pittsburgh's victory that same night pulled it within one point of the division lead.
One night later, the Capitals beat Florida to take a four-point lead atop the conference.
"We've been waiting for eight months to get to the playoffs," forward Scott Hartnell said. "Seven months out of those eight, we've been great. This last month, we've not been great. Maybe it's a lull before we get jacked-up again."
Catching Washington will require two Philadelphia wins plus a Capitals regulation loss to Florida on Saturday. While the Flyers can clinch the Atlantic on Friday with a victory plus a Penguins loss to the New York Islanders, two Pittsburgh wins over the weekend would leave Philadelphia needing at least three more points to avoid falling to fourth.
"It's hard to sit here," coach Peter Laviolette said, "and make excuses for (our play)."
Should the Flyers wind up second in the East, a matchup with Buffalo (41-29-10) could occur. Unlike Philadelphia, though, the Sabres are playing well down the stretch. Tuesday's 4-2 win over Tampa Bay lifted them to 7-1-2 in their past 10 games and has them one win from guaranteeing a trip to the postseason.
Buffalo can finish as high as sixth should Montreal stumble.
"I think we battled hard for three months to put ourselves in a good position, so I think we know that if we win, we'll be in," forward Thomas Vanek, who had a hat trick Tuesday, told the Sabres' official website. "For us, it's about getting the win Friday night and getting the win Saturday (at Columbus), and we'll go from there."
Getting Ryan Miller back should help. Though Buffalo has won the four games Miller missed with an upper-body injury, it was happy to hear coach Lindy Ruff say Thursday that the reigning Vezina Trophy winner will play either Friday or Saturday.
Miller, however, is just 4-4-0 with a 3.26 goals-against average in his last eight starts versus Philadelphia.
The Flyers have scored 14 goals and connected five times in 11 power-play chances while winning two of three from the Sabres this season, and their biggest offensive contributor may also be set to return. Danny Briere, who has two goals and four assists in this season series, could play after missing two games with a lower-body injury.
He felt no lingering soreness in practice Thursday, and told the Flyers' official website he's fired up at the possibility of facing Buffalo -- and helping end his team's slide.
"We have to be ready to play a playoff-type game tomorrow because that's what they're going to be coming with," Briere said.
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