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Sabres Central

Playoff hopes come to a screeching halt
By Rick Anderson
April 3, 2004

Derek Roy gets his stick up on Leafs goalie Ed Belfour in third period action. Befour shutout the Sabres as the Leafs won 2-0.
[AP Photo/David Duprey]

The Buffalo Sabres took it to the brink. They put enough pressure on the New York Islanders the last two weeks where the Isles actually broke into a little sweat. The Isles decided to end the dispute over who went to the playoffs once and for all by thumping the Carolina Hurricanes 6-4 Friday night. The Sabres, meanwhile, didn't know what was happening in Carolina. The scoreboard that gave out of town updates had been turned off so the players would be kept in the dark about how the Isles were doing.

Without the knowledge of how the Isles were doing, the Sabres attended to matters at hand and attempted to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs had their own agenda to achieve and they accomplished that by beating the Sabres 2-0 before a sellout crowd that had more Leafs boosters than Sabres fans. While their goal of making the playoffs was shattered about an hour earlier in Carolina, the Sabres players didn't know that and this loss put the final nail in the coffin as far as they were concerned.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff thinks that word had somehow reached some of the players that the Isles were manhandling the ‘Canes, as they had a 6-1 lead at one point in the second period.

"You'd like to believe some of the players didn't know, but they probably did," reasoned Ruff . "You saw in the third period a couple players probably were battling through that. You didn't see that same desperation you saw the first two periods."

Maybe it was Ruff himself who gave it away when the players read his face during the intermission after the second period.

"Lindy walked in between the second and third period and for whatever reason we had a feeling," figured Biron. "It was still 0-0 and we were still in it, but you can tell from a guy as intense as Lindy is that something had happened that wasn't in the plans."

"I didn't actually find out until after the game, but you can tell with an intense coaching staff like we have, and Scott (Arniel) and Brian (McCutcheon), that something wasn't good, so I had a feeling."

The Leafs throng kept the arena electric, even if the Sabres fans knew that their team's fate was sealed. The "Go Leafs Go" was ever present through the final stanza and the Leafs started to kick their attack into high gear as the period progressed. With the score still scoreless, the Leafs pressured the Sabres until it was obvious Toronto was going to break the shutout. Biron had kept the Sabres in the game with some outstanding saves up until the Leafs finally got the break they were looking for. Biron, who was absorbing every shot that came his way, finally let a rebound get away from him and Chad Kilger was there to pounce on the oportunity, slaming it home into the open corner to Biron's left.

The Sabres were not pressing like they had been in the first two periods and that goal by Kilger was the straw that broke the Sabres sword. Buffalo got a power play late in the period and it is a wonder why Ruff didn't pull Biron earlier than he did, which was after the penalty expired. Over a week ago, Ruff had pulled Biron with around 7 minutes to go in the game to get a 2-man advantage and it paid big dividends as they were able to score and eventually tie up a game they were behind in 3-1. If Ruff had done the same with 3 minutes to go, maybe the Sabres could have pulled this one out. As it was, when Biron finally was able to leave the net with 1 minute remaining, the Leafs were able to storm in on a 2-on-1 with Joe Nieuwendyk getting the insurance goal.

The Eagle flies high

Ed Belfour stonewalled the Sabres shooters, coming up with his ninth shutout of the season. While he didn't have to make as many saves as Biron, who was stellar with 27 stops, the "Eagle"stopped 17 shots and was the main force behind the Leafs victory. With the win, the Leafs are still in contention for the top Northeast Division spot.

The Sabres, who seemed to have overcome their early season offensive woes, reverted back to that form in what could have been the most crucial game of the season. They only mustered 17 shots on goal and what few good opportunities they had, they squandered. $5 million sniper Miroslav Satan once again proved that the Sabres made a mistake signing him to that kind of money when he broke in alone on Belfour, was hesitant to shoot, and turned a 180 degree circle, letting the Leafs defensemen to come back to help. By then, Satan had no choice but shoot and it was wide of the net. Satan has 29 goals to date and may get his 30 to give him some credence for his fat pay check. However, the Sabres would be smart to deal him for a player who could be more consistent before next season.

Coming up short

This was a season of what if's. What if the Sabres had played the kind of hockey they played the last month much earlier in the season? What if Sabres GM Darcy Regier had given Ruff some support with a trade a month or two earlier than the trading deadline. What if Biron had played as spectacular in December as he did in March? A couple wins in November or December could have been the difference from securing their first playoff berth in 3 years and another early golfing season.

The Sabres have to be commended for staging a late surge, but the big question is why wasn't it there all along?

Last season, the Sabres also had a late season surge, but this year's run came close to getting the Sabres their goal of 8th seed in the playoffs. Until Friday's game, the were 9-1-1-3, all in the month of March.

"We played hard," Chris Drury said. "I'd like to think of it as that was our playoffs. We fought tooth and nail. Every game was do or die."

"That was a heck of a run," Drury continued. "We've been clawing and fighting and scrapping for points for a long time and so many positive things came out of this for the team. Derek (Roy) and Milan (Bartovic) stepping up down the stretch, Marty played great, and so did the guys who came over at the trading deadline. I'm really proud of how hard the guys played."

Ruff was proud of his boys.

"It feels a hell of a lot better this year than it did last year," confessed Ruff. "This year ownership sent a strong message that it was going to make this team better and take one heck of a run at it. You can't compare that feeling. I was confident every time I stepped behind the bench that we could win a game."

Even so, the fans were disappointed that their Sabres once again came up short. With next season being in question because of the CBA labor talks that could wipe out the entire season, the fans may have to wait yet another year before they can taste the playoff atmosphere again.


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