Saturday, June 03, 2006

Close but ...

Western New York has been exhaling for the past couple of days, as the Buffalo Sabres' playoff run came to an end on Thursday night. Most of the fans seem to agree that it was quite a six-week ride, the Sabres gave everything they had, there were no disputed calls that will cause anguish for months, and they (the fans) are ready for next season.

All true.

Let's add two more points while the subject is in our minds.

First, this was a terrific job of coaching by Lindy Ruff, who regained his reputation as a fine coach around the league this year. After a superb regular season, he came up with topnotch gameplans against Philadelphia and Ottawa, and kept compensating when his defense was decimated by injuries (four of his top six were out of the lineup by Game Seven against Carolina). Ruff also tried to deflect attention from his defense before Game Seven by making some out-of-character, caustic remarks. It worked. Rod Brind'Amour, who should have realized what was going on, even ripped into Ruff right after winning Game Seven.

Second, a bit of a reality check probably is in order. There's one huge truth in sports: you don't get many chances to win a championship. Buffalo may never have a better one.

The Sabres caught a good matchup in the first round. Philadelphia had a slow, big defense that was ill-equipped to keep up with Buffalo's fast forwards. Besides, Peter Forsberg was skating on zero legs (both ankles will have surgery before he returns).

Next up was Ottawa. Remember, the Senators jumped out to the lead in their division in part because Dominik Hasek was brilliant early. Then Hasek was hurt in the Olympics, and Ottawa had to rely on Ray Emery. The Senators had enough to win the top seed, but they clearly weren't as good as they were when Hasek was in top form.

By the time the Sabres had taken charge of the Ottawa series -- it took two whole games in Ottawa to do so -- the brackets had busted open. The team to fear in the East, New Jersey, was going down meekly to Carolina by that point. The top four seeds in the West were all gone. I'll repeat that -- the top four seeds in the West were gone.

In the conference finals, the Sabres were looking at a team with a similar talent level. There was no Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur waiting in goal; Martin Gerber or Cam Ward didn't give the Hurricanes an advantage over Ryan Miller. Carolina had more experience; Buffalo had more depth. The teams were close in the regular season, and they were close at that point.

Alas, the Stanley Cup playoffs are a marathon, not a sprint. The Sabres starting losing defensemen in rapid succession. The final blow came when Jay McKee, who had been playing his heart out for weeks, went down with an infected leg. No team is going far with four missing defensemen. They performed valiantly, but Carolina finally had enough in the end to win it. By the way, the idea that the Sabres should have traded backup goalie Martin Biron for a defenseman is 20-20 hindsight. If Biron had been dealt and Miller had been hurt, then the Sabres would have been ripped for weakening themselves in the most important position in hockey.

Teams change from year to year, and the Sabres have had a historically difficult time re-signing their own unrestricted free agents. That might mean McKee and Mike Grier will be elsewhere next season. Biron figures to be gone in some sort of deal as well. Other teams might do a better job of figuring out what players perform well under the NHL's new rules.

We don't know what the future holds, as there are no guarantees. We only know that the Sabres had an opportunity to do some very historic this year, and it didn't happen -- mostly because of an unprecedented run of injuries. With all the feelgood aspects to the Sabres' season, that last fact is going to make this a more difficult offseason that you might believe.

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