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Sabres Canadiens Hockey

The Sabres' Jack Eichel, left, and Jeff Skinner celebrate a goal against the Canadiens Nov. 8 in Montreal. 

It's been awhile Buffalo, but welcome back to competitive NHL hockey.

So long ago, the Sabres were regular playoff participants. While the Stanley Cup has eluded Buffalo for its entire 48-year history, the Sabres have been in the mix more often than not.

But the franchise has fallen on hard times on the ice during the last decade or so. The Sabres haven't appeared in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2011 and haven't won a playoff series since 2007. Prior to this 2018-19 season, Buffalo owned the worst record in hockey in three of the last seven seasons.

For as much attention as the Bills' playoff drought received, the Sabres run of ineptitude — much of it on purpose — was sad in its own right. While many associate Buffalo with those Bills, and Buffalo wings, the city is very much a hockey town, too.

Every year when NBC posts its television ratings for the Stanley Cup Final, Buffalo is among the top markets tuning in; it didn't matter if the two teams were from Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas, Pittsburgh and Nashville, or Chicago and Tampa. The city is also home to the NHL Scouting Combine, recently hosted the NHL Entry Draft and World Junior Championships, and three years ago became home for the New York state high school hockey championships.

The Sabres' struggles have left a void at the professional level, however. Are the woeful days over? You know ... they just might be. While Buffalo's recent 10-game winning streak and current placement among the league's best stink slightly of a fluke, the Sabres are without a doubt on the uptick.

What's not to like? Captain Jack Eichel is among the league's leaders in points, and the 22-year-old's contract will keep him in Buffalo until at least 2026. Rasmus Dahlin, the first overall pick in this year's draft, is living up to that billing and is probably Buffalo's first true franchise defenseman in decades. Jeff Skinner is scoring goals at an Alexander Ovechkin-esque pace.

To boot, Buffalo's top affiliate, the Rochester Americans, is one of the best teams in the AHL and the Sabres have three first-round picks in the 2019 draft to further supplement that prospect pool.

Are the Sabres as good as their 17-8-4 record would indicate? Can this team win the Stanley Cup this year? I'd say no to both, but even the most optimistic preseason expectations said that Buffalo at best could be in the mix for a wild-card position, and the Sabres are way ahead of the curve on that. It would take a serious meltdown, like 15 wins in their last 50 games, to fall out of the playoff picture.

Love for hockey was never really gone in Buffalo. Even as the Sabres sat in the cellar of the NHL the last seven years, attendance, in terms of arena capacity, never dipped below 95 percent. The aforementioned television ratings are further proof of that of the city's interest in puck.

Congrats Buffalo, you suffered through some long years and are now reaping the benefit. My advice: Enjoy it now as much as possible. There is no better time to be a sports fan than when you're cheering for a young team that is ahead of schedule; right now there's little pressure to win and every point in the standings feels like a bonus.

Soon, winning will be the expectation, every playoff loss will feel like a missed opportunity and the fear of falling short, as so many Sabres teams in the past have, will rear its ugly head.

Have fun with this season, because soon there will be a new bar to clear.

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Sports writer Justin Ritzel can be reached at 282-2257 or at justin.ritzel@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenRitz.

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Sports Reporter