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In The End, Melancholy & Sadness

When the curtain finally fell, it was a surreal scene. There it was, the season finale, and the good guys absolutely throttled the Boston Bruins, 6-1. Thomas Vanek notched his 39th and 40th goals of the season. When it all ended, most of the fans who stuck around gave their team a hearty standing ovation, and the players joined together at center ice to return the love and give the crowd a warm salute.

Yet amidst this topsy-turvy display, there was a palpable sadness everywhere at HSBC Arena this past Saturday. One could feel it through the stands, where the game had the feel of a September exhibition. And those in the media interview room and dressing room could certainly feel it, as everyone associated with the organization, from the players in uniform, to managing partner Larry Quinn, to Coach Lindy Ruff and his assistants, to the public relations staff, to the players who weren’t dressed for the game, to the media corps who cover this team regularly, walked around with dazed and lifeless expressions, as if to say, “How the hell could this have happened.”

Ruff, who almost always speaks to the media with an air of confidence and swagger, entered the interview room looking totally beaten and shaken. Rumors circulated all afternoon that he was about to be fired, and his demeanor and expression did nothing to dispel that story. In his brief comments, he shared his disappointment in not making the playoffs, and when asked if he would be returning next season, he quietly replied, “Until I’m told otherwise I plan to be back.”

As is too often the case when things aren’t just peachy in Sabreland, most players made themselves scarce after the game. But one of the players who was available and took on all the questions was defenseman Jaroslav Spacek. There are few nicer and classier guys on this team than Spacek, always a gentleman and always reverent to the press. Spacek pulled no punches. “Of course we’re disappointed. I’ve been on bad teams before, like down in Columbus, and this is not a bad team. We had every hope that this would be a big year for us, and we failed. I failed. And I am sorry because our fans here deserved so much better.”

Spacek’s contract expires at the end of this season, and he will be an unrestricted free agent. He admitted that he would like to come back. “I like it here. The people here are great. I try to be a veteran that can help the younger guys along. We will see what happens.”

Another notables drawing a media crowd in the dressing room was Quinn, who chose his words carefully and had little new to say, except that the top-to-bottom organization evaluation process had begun the day prior. “There is nobody here that isn’t totally miserable about this,” said Quinn.

Defenseman Teppo Numminen didn’t formally announce his retirement, but with his wife holding the camcorder and his children sitting on the Sabres bench as the final ticks ended the game, he certainly looked the part of a guy who was hanging it up. Numminen heaped praise on the Buffalo community. “It’s a good place to live, we’re going to be here no matter what” he said.

The Sabres have to be galled looking at the standings, and seeing how tantalizingly close the playoffs and a first round matchup against the Boston Bruins really was. Looking back, just think of the points that were wasted…four overtime/shootout losses against the lowly Atlanta Thrashers, for example. But none was more gut-wrenching than on March 14, when Atlanta tied the game with three seconds left in regulation, then won it in the shootout.

Against the Ottawa Senators, one of the conference’s bottom feeders, the team went 1-4-1. On February 28, the Sabres traveled to Long Island and were shutout 2-0 by the Islanders, the worst team in the league. On December 1, the Sabres sleepwalked against the Nashville Predators in one of the most unwatchable games in recent memory, again losing 2-0. So many points left on the table.

So as Taro Tsujimoto says “sayonara” for another season, let’s look across the league and see how all those guys who were such an integral part of the Sabres’ magical 2005-2006 post-lockout season are doing…

Marty Biron? Starting in net for the playoff bound Philadelphia Flyers. Mike Grier? His San Jose Sharks are demolishing the West. Boy, did he have this team pegged when he departed. J.P. Dumont? Scored 65 points this season and the Preds are back in the playoffs. Brian Campbell? The Blackhawks are back in the playoffs for first time in who knows how long. Jay McKee? Don’t look now but the St. Louis Blues are also in the playoffs, and McKee has been healthy all season. Daniel Briere and Chris Drury? Let’s not even go there, except to say you can watch those guys on TV these next few weeks.

Top-to-bottom review? When Quinn says “top,” we hope he means it, because the self-evaluation process begins with owner Tom Golisano and goes from there. We will all be watching.

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