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Thank You Sabres

Despite disappointing result, one of the best playoff series ever

Apart from adding a series-clinching win for the Buffalo Sabres, could anyone have written a better script to this first-round series?

The Sabres, the doormat of the NHL just a few months ago, given up for lost, rose from the ashes to qualify for the postseason. Then they took on the mighty Philadelphia Flyers, last year’s Stanley Cup finalists and a consensus pick by many to repeat as this year’s finalist out of the East. Yet the plucky and gritty Sabres, with their young defense, missing a few of their core players, and riding on the back of their all-world goaltender, took the Flyers all the way to a seventh game before going down 5-2 at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday.

In mid November, any fan wearing the blue and gold would have gladly accepted their team getting to this point.

Of course, the Sabres had a golden opportunity to close out the series in game six this past Sunday before the hometown fans and they blew it. They surrendered a 3-1 lead, then a 4-3 lead, before losing in overtime. Following that game, Chris Butler was making excuses for his poor play that led to Ville Leino’s overtime winner. Drew Stafford was hanging his head in the dressing room and looking dispirited. Ryan Miller was referring to Mike Richard’s hit on Tim Connolly as “mass murder.” Game six was their time and they failed.

In game seven the entire house of cards came crashing down. The defense was horrible. Special teams were dreadful, too, as Philadelphia finally figured out how to score on the power play, while Buffalo’s man-advantage situations were painful to watch. The Sabres were unable to mount any sort of sustained pressure or generate scoring chances at all. The best they could hope for would be to exit the first period unscathed after being outshot 16-2. That did not happen as the Flyers scored late. As Ryan Miller exited the game in the third period and headed down the tunnel, Coach Lindy Ruff patted him on the shoulder and mouthed these words that said it all: “It’s not your fault.” It wasn’t.

So now the Sabres head to the offseason, and it will undoubtedly be the most interesting one in their history. Tim Connolly’s contract is up, and nobody is expecting that he will stick around. Jochen Hecht has a season to go, and some are speculating that he might be moved. Mike Grier and Rob Niedermayer are also free agents, but their tenure and playoff mettle proved to be huge assets in this postseason. The entire defensive corps is under contract next season for half the cost of just two Philadelphia defensemen, Kimmo Timonen and Chris Pronger.

On the flip side, Drew Stafford is a restricted free agent and will be looking for a hefty raise from his current $2.3 million salary. Defensemen Andrej Sekera, Chris Butler, Mike Weber, and Marc Andre Gragnani are all hitting the restricted free agent market at the same time and decisions will have to be made as to who to keep and at what price. One other significant restricted free agent of note is Nathan Gerbe.

It is possible that Zack Kassian will be wearing a Sabres uniform next season, and that adds not only talent but a boatload of meanness to this team.

The Sabres should be very active in the free agent market. Owner Terry Pegula has indicated that his hockey department should have the green light to make whatever moves necessary to bolster the team without regard to budget. With many of the core players under contract and not too much front loading—which the Flyers, for example, will be encumbered with for a long time after this season—the Sabres are in great position to build on their current roster to make a serious challenge for a Cup run as early as next year.

The puck drops at Hartwell Arena in Helsinki on October 7 to raise the curtain on the next great chapter of Sabres hockey. Who is excited? We are!

Taro Sez…

• TV ratings for the playoff games against Philadelphia were strong and got even better as the series progressed. The front office correctly pointed out that the numbers (22.8 rating, 32 share at one point) were even more astounding, taking into account that almost 25,000 people were actually at the arena and the adjacent Party in the Plaza and not in front of their television sets.

• Zack Kassian update: Our future bad boy has received at least a one-game suspension from the OHL. Kassian, who plays for the Windsor Spitfires, received a match penalty in the closing seconds of game three of their playoff series against Owen Sound. The referees determined that Kassian was deliberately attempting to injure Owen Sound defenseman (and former Spitfire teammate) Jesse Blacker as time was winding down.

• Congrats to the Portland Pirates on their first-round series win, four games to two. The Sabres farmhands now move on to face the Binghamton Senators in round two of AHL Calder Cup action.

• That Sabres roadie to Europe just gets better and better. The team has added an October 4 exhibition game against Adler Mannheim at SAP Arena in Jochen Hecht’s hometown.

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