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This is Just a Tease

Sabres playoff dreams extinguished the night Miller went down

It’s been a feel good week, hasn’t it? The comeback win against Florida, the beatdown of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and then the dramatic, six-round shootout victory in Montreal once again gave beleaguered Sabres fans new hope. Why can’t the Sabres show this sort of heart, this sort of grit, this sort of toughness, every night, every period, every shift?

But as much as we we’ll still continue watching, and hoping, and tracking the out-of-town scoreboard with great interest, this season is over.

In hindsight, the season came crashing down on February 24. That was the night Scott Gomez of the New York Rangers singlehandedly put an end to the Sabres’ playoff dreams, upending Miller behind the Sabres net and causing Miller to suffer a high ankle sprain.

What has happened since then? The Sabres went a woeful 3-7-2 before peeling off their most recent turnaround. Meanwhile, teams like Philadelphia, New York, Carolina, and Pittsburgh all went on a tear. Essentially, this left Buffalo, Montreal, and Florida fighting it out for the eighth and final playoff spot.

The newest Sabre, goaltender Mikael Tellqvist, enjoyed his first win as a Buffalo Sabre against the Florida Panthers last week. After the game, Tellqvist did everything he could to squelch the criticisms of his new teammates. “There’s a lot of pride in this room,” said Tellqvist. “The media and the fans have been too harsh on this team. We deserve better.” Lindy Ruff admitted in his post-game comments that night that the team had struggled through a particularly nasty flu virus, which has taken its toll on the team’s energy, giving them another challenge to overcome.

“Pride”? That must be Tellqvist’s definition of debilitating losses to the New York Islanders, Atlanta, and twice to Ottawa, three of the conference’s bottom-feeders. When this season is done, one can only count the points left on the table against the Senators; that alone will write the story.

But there is more…much, much more. Patrick Lalime took on the starting role, performed more than adequately, yet got no goal support. Tim Connolly pulled a disappearing act the day after signing his ridiculous two-year contract extension. Max Afinogenov’s return came in fits and starts, and an animated shouted match between Ruff and Max on the bench last week was there for all the world to see.

Where has Dan Paille been? Or Clarke MacArthur? Henrik Tallinder sleepwalks through game after game, yet Nathan Paetsch, who played his best hockey as a Sabre in January when the defensive corps got thin, sits in street clothes.

Too many passengers.

If there was one flicker of hope, it happened right after Max Afinogenov scored the empty-netter to seal the deal against the Panthers. He was cheap-shotted with a dirty hit by Nathan Horton, and captain Craig Rivet behaved like a captain should, getting into a scrum with Keith Ballard while the rest of the players on the ice teed off.

This is the kind of toughness and heart we have seen too little of this season.

And while the Sabres may put together a fine end of season run with six games coming up in these next nine days, make no mistake: It is all just a tease. As much as we want to wish and believe, the mathematics will most likely hit the team before the curtain drops at home against Boston next Saturday.

If we are wrong, and by some miracle this team pulls into eighth spot, we will gladly eat this column. More likely, we will be passing the ketchup bottle to owner Tom Golisano, who famously promised to eat his microphone if his team did not make it to the playoffs this season.


■ Three jeers for HSBC Arena management. Following last Saturday’s Bandits game they put the Sabres/Montreal game up on the big board as soon as final horn sounded. Then, inexplicably, they doused the feed as soon as Sabres regulation play ended, suggesting that fans head up to the 200 level Harbour Club to watch the rest of the game. Hundreds of fans milled around the pavilion, huddled around soundless monitors, to watch the exciting shootout finish. The moment would have been much cooler in the arena seating bowl, with thousands of fans still in their seats and Rick Jeanneret’s dramatic call of Toni Lydman’s game-winner.

■ A Lindy Ruff post-game press briefing devoid of reporters, and others frantically on their cell phones? That was the case last Friday night, as rumors of Ralph Wilson’s passing shot through the media corps and the press box, leaving everyone scrambling for the story.

■ Yes there might be playoffs! If not in Buffalo, then in nearby Elmira, where the ECHL Elmira Jackals are positioned well in a five-way race for four playoff slots that will not be decided until the season concludes this Saturday. Should the Jackals advance to the Kelly Cup playoffs, postseason action will begin on April 9. The Jackals play at First Arena in beautiful and bucolic downtown Elmira.

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