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Sabres Central

Sabres cap off season with Blue & Gold
By Rick Anderson
April 7, 2003

Mika Noronen, wearing the old Sabres colors, turns back a shot by Devils center John Madden while James Patrick comes in to help out Noronen. The Sabres and Devils played to a 2-2 tie to end the season.
[AP Photo/Don Heupel]

It was an unexpected and much appreciated end to what most feel was the Buffalo Sabres worst season in history. The team may have posted worst records, but considering the turmoil in trying to secure a new owner to keep the team in Buffalo along with the poor performance on the ice, and Sabres fans are already looking forward to next season. They may have gotten a glimpse of the future when the Sabres unexpectedly skated on the ice for their last game against the New Jersey Devils with their original home uniforms. It was greeted by a standing ovation and by just seeing the old blue and gold uniforms was well worth the price of admission.

The Devils and Sabres played to a 2-2 tie, but the fans were impressed by the team's intensity and even more by the throw-back uniforms.

"There's a lot of fond memories in the blue and gold and the Aud," reflected Sabres coach Lindy Ruff who may have coached his last game behind the Sabres bench. "I've got lots, the fans have lots. That was a great building to watch hockey games. You think of Gilbert Perreault, you think of a lot of magical moments."

Other players also felt the pride of wearing the traditional garb.

"My first-ever game I wore that (blue and gold uniform) so when I stepped on the ice I had chills," declared Jay McKee. "There's a ton of tradition and history behind those jerseys, and that's one of the things that made it so special."

Tom Golisano, who should officially become the Sabres owner "in a matter of days" decided to bring back the old uniforms as a gesture toward the Sabres fans who have had a lot to endure this season.

"It was the No. 1 request of the fans," admitted Golisano. "Larry Quinn said on Friday, "Let's do it.' Obviously, the fans loved it."

Golisano has hinted that he may go back to those colors once he officially takes over the team. However, there is a catch that may prevent this from happening until the 2004-05 season. Approval has to be obtained through the NHL and the red tape involved in changing a team's uniform is massive.

The NHL director for team uniforms, Lloyd Haymes, stated that teams applying for a change of uniform must wait a year and a quarter before it can take effect. This is because of all the red tape involved in marketing such new uniforms. The team would have to submit a proposal for the uniform change by this July 15 for the team to start wearing the traditional uniforms in two seasons.

Sabres fight to the finish

After being blasted by Boston the day before 8-5, the Sabres came back and shored up their defense, allowing only 2 goals by the Atlantic Division winner Devils. Mika Noronen was in goal and did allow one weak goal, the Devils' first, when he got caught out of position behind the net and couldn't get back in time as Grant Marshall got the Devils on the scoreboard first.

The Sabres stormed back, however, in the second stanza with goals by Ales Kotalik and Alexei Zhitnik in just over the first 3 minutes of that period. It appeared as if the Sabres were going to hold that lead and finish the season on a winning note. However, Patrik Elias evened the score at 2 with a little over 6 minutes remaining in the second period. From then on, the goalies were unbeatable. Both Noronen and Devils backup goalie Corey Schwab stopped 28 shots.

Electricity in the air

There was something electric in the air of HSBC Arena Sunday afternoon. It started with the blue and gold traditional uniforms, but the team itself seemed to be charged up. It's like a new beginning with the Sabres.

Chris Taylor and Alexei Zhitnik try to keep the Devils Jamie Langenbrunner in check before he can get a shot off on the Sabres goal.
[AP Photo/Don Heupel]

They have been put through hell this season. Starting with the arrest of their former owner, John Rigas, to the league having to take over and run operations, to the filing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the team has been dragged through the coals. Potential owner Mark Hamister put in a bid and had it accepted by the league, only to withdraw his bid after he could not secure the $40 million in public assistance he was depending on. In stepped Golisano, who's original bid was rejected by the league. Golisano dropped any public assistance requests to the delight of local leaders and was deemed the "White Knight" that saved the franchise for Buffalo.

Golisano was upbeat after the Devils game.

"I think they're feeling really good about where they are today, and I think that feeling will carry on until next year," beamed Golisano in a post game interview. "My enthusiasm, maybe a month ago, was down here," Golisano pointed to the ground. "But I can tell you it's on the ceiling right now, and I can't wait until next year because this is going to be a competitive team."

Ruff, who now becomes and unrestricted free agent as a coaching prospect, says he wants to stay with the Sabres.

"I'm excited about sitting down and talking to him,'' explained Ruff about negotiating with Golisano. "We haven't had a lengthy conversation, and I'm looking forward to that. But I've got no timetable.''

Ruff also was thrilled over how the team was energetic at the end of the season, mostly because of the electricity that Golisano has brought to the team.

"There's a real good feeling," Ruff lauded about the new attitude on the team. "We've had some real good chemistry, real good energy. We're undefeated in the last six (in HSBC) to close out the year. Offensively we've been playing better. There's just been a real good buzz since the announcement of Tom taking over the team. He is excited," Ruff talked about the energy Golisano has brought to the team. "He's brought a lot of excitement, just the energy he brings when he's around. That energy has spilled off into the team."

Other players are feeding off the Golden touch of Golisano.

"There seems to be excitement in the city still," explained Adam Mair. "It's been really fun. Just having the ownership in place and knowing there's a good feeling around the team and around the community, it gives us hope."

Fate of Ruff and Regier

Golisano holds the key to the fate of both Ruff and Sabres GM Darcy Regier in his hands. Ruff, indicating that he would like to stay in Buffalo for the reconstruction project, could be back here next season. However, lots of fans and members of the media have been clamoring for Regier's head. His attempts to improve the team the past two seasons has been dismal at best. While it has been noted that Regier's hands were tied because of financial restraints, even he admitted that he was free to make any trade.

Golisano implied after the Devils game that he would have a meeting with both Ruff and Regier to decide their future with the Sabres.

Ruff has been rumored to have been offered the job with the Columbus Blue Jackets, where Ruff is close friends with Doug MacLean, the BJs GM and acting coach. Florida and the New York Rangers have also been mentioned as possible destinations for Ruff.

Ruff broke Scotty Bowman's team franchise record for wins last Wednesday. If he does leave to coach elsewhere, he will leave the legacy of being a good coach, but one that never got his team to play consistently. His teams would beat some of the league's elite teams, only to fall prey to some of the weakest teams.

Ruff discussed the upcoming meeting with Golisano and his lead man in the negotiations to purchase the team, former Sabres president Larry Quinn.

"There's conversations we need to have, Larry and Tom and Darcy and I," Ruff said. We'll have those, and possibly good things will come from that."

Quinn had some kudos for how Ruff handled the coaching when the roof was falling down upon him and the team, "He did a great job. Most people would have quit under the circumstances. I think we had our announcement March 15, and since that time I think we've passed five or six teams. It is a reflection on Lindy and the job he does. I think the players made it clear how they feel, too."

Bruins bomb Buffalo

It was like an NHL All-Star game, minus most of the all-stars. The goals came lightning quick and both Sabres goalie Martin Biron and Bruins goalie Steve Shields probably felt they were receiving some of the bombardment that the city of Baghdad has been experiencing since Operation Iraqi Freedom started.

It was surprising that Biron remained standing in the crease after the first period barrage of 4 Bruin goals. Several of them were ones that were very stoppable. Ruff talked to Biron after the first period when the Bruins took a 4-2 lead.

"I was worried about Marty," explained Ruff about his talk with Biron after the first period. "I asked him how he felt, where his head was at. I asked him if he wanted to battle through it. I thought he deserved that chance."

Biron went back in and it was like a prizefighter taking a beating and the ref allowing it to continue until he was pulverized.

Mike Knuble got the Bruins up early on a power-play goal 2:19 into the game, followed by a goal by the Sabres Daniel Briere just under a minute later. Halfway through the period, Glen Murray scored his 43rd goal of the season on Biron, but Miroslav Satan notched his 26th of the season when he scored from the right faceoff circle.

Right before the first period ended, the Bruins scored two quick goals that Biron wished he could have back. Brian Rolston and Knuble got the puck past Biron and most fans felt they would be seeing Noronen in the nets come the second period.

Ruff, however, decided to stick with Biron. P.J. Stock clearly interfered with Biron, forcing him down to the ice while Don Sweeney shot the puck into the vacated net. Biron protested in vain and the Bruins had a 5-2 lead.

That's when the Sabres made another outstanding comeback effort. It started with a fluke goal. The Sabres were shorthanded with Maxim Afinogenov in the penalty box and Dmitri Kalinin took the puck from just outside the Sabres blueline and flipped it into the Bruins zone to take some time off the clock. The puck took a crazy bounce and went past Tim Thomas, who had replaced Shields in the nets for the Bruins. All of a sudden it was 5-3 Bruins.

Then the Bruins went on a 5-on-3 powerplay and converted when Jozef Stumpel scored. But the Sabres came right back on goals by Milan Bartovic and Taylor Pyatt. However, the Bruins stormed back with two more goals, getting 8 past a beleaguered Biron.

"It's not something that happens a lot, but it happens to everybody," admitted Biron afterwards. "Patrick (Roy of the Avs) in his last game in Montreal over there, he gave up eight in 11/2 periods before he got pulled and made those big scenes. It's not a fun feeling. I guess you just gotta overlook it."

Road from here

This has been a very excruciating season for the Sabres and their fans. With the new ownership about to be put into place, next season should be a vast improvement over this brad of hockey the Sabres fans were subjected to. Also, it will be nice to just concentrate on hockey instead of bankruptcy laws, requests for public assistance for parking lots and ribbon advertising and such. Tom Golisano should be a man of his word. He is also a good businessman and knows that he will have to make the team entertaining to bring back a lot of the lost fans.

Here's to everyone who stuck out this season of gloom and hopefully we will all be refreshed and raring to go next season. Enjoy the summer (if it ever comes!), and see you next October.

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