Wake Up Call

By Chris

If you ever have a chance to go to a playoff game in which your team is facing elimination, please take my advice: Don’t. It is one of the most stressful things I think you can do to yourself short of taking your road test three times in a row. Your time literally lives and dies with every shot, every save. And if that game goes to overtime? Forget it. You’ve already taken six years off of your life by just sitting there. I started writing this column over 12 hours ago and I’m finally just able to rationalize my thoughts here on Sunday morning. It is a great experience to go to the arena and the game was fun while it lasted, but like the 2006-07 season of the Buffalo Sabres, all good things must come to an end.

Daniel Alfredsson wrote perfect poetry when he scored the overtime winner to eliminate the Sabres yesterday. After all, it was Alfredsson whom Jason Pominville danced around to score the series clincher last season. In Game Five. On the road. In overtime. Sound familiar?

The Sens captain is playing the best hockey of his career, and is finally letting people forget about his past postseason failures, much like Peyton Manning was able to do on his road to a Super Bowl Championship. He stepped up and scored when it counted. It didn’t matter than three Sabres were on him or that the winning shot went in off of Brian Campbell’s stick, which he claims it did. The fact is that the shot went in and he got credit for it. His line was huge all series and they definitely came to play on Saturday. Alfredsson, Heatley and Spezza contributed on all three Sens goals, picking up a combined seven points. That’s unbelievable, to get that much production out of one line. And they’ve been doing it all playoffs. No one has been able to effectively shut them down. But of course now they’re just asking for trouble. Why did you touch the Prince of Wales Trophy, Alfie? Why?

Herb Brooks once said, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” And that was the difference in the Sabres-Senators series. Talent-wise, the teams were pretty much even, but Ottawa displayed that extra drive and a little more desire in their play. The Sabres claimed that the Stanley Cup was supposed to be theirs last season and that they only had one goal this season: to win it all. However, they didn’t play like champions this postseason. They weren’t the same team we fell in love with last year. They were the favorites and couldn’t live up to the hype. Ottawa on the other hand, with the least amount of pressure on them in years, took advantage of the underdog role they assumed and came into the playoffs hungrier than anyone. They played like we did last season, scoring timely goals, capitalizing on special teams, and blocking shots like no one’s business. The Senators just flat out worked harder than the Sabres did and earned every win they got.

I’m still not sold on Ray Emery, though. After all, John Muckler’s plan at the beginning of the season was to have their free agent signing Martin Gerber in net. But Gerber and his 3-year, $11.1 million salary faltered early on in the regular season, and Emery took over as one of the best goalies all year. He was the back-up plan. And so far he’s been just good enough to win games behind possibly the all-around best starting defense in the NHL. He hasn’t stolen a game for the Senators yet this playoff, and it’s unclear if he can. But I can see Anaheim and Detroit cashing in those rebounds like Buffalo, New Jersey, and Pittsburgh largely were unable to.

As for that Ottawa defense, they’re not going anywhere soon. Tom Preissing, the corps’ supposed weak link of the Sens defense, who finished the Sabres series with an even +/- rating, is their only free agent in the starting six. Redden and Meszaros enter their contract year next season and Corvo, Phillips and shot-blocking monster Anton Volchenkov are all locked up for the next 3-4 years. The Senators lost their horse, Zdeno Chara to free agency last season and remarkably, they got stronger in their own end this year. The Sabres will play this Sens defense eight times in the regular season, and this year certainly won’t be the last time they play Ottawa in the playoffs. Buffalo will need to find the right players that will be able to crack the Ottawa defense, or build up their blue line to become more physical against that Alfredsson line.

A key component in the Buffalo system that will not need to be reinvented is the goaltending Ryan Miller is an elite playoff goalie. This series, he solidified himself among the best goaltenders in the game today. I hear people saying how he’s “on the cusp of stardom” and he’s “close to becoming a great goalie.” Sorry, folks, but he’s already there. The soft goals we saw in the regular season are far and few between in the playoffs and he has a knack of putting out his best saves when his team needs them the most. If it wasn’t for Ryan Miller, Ottawa would have eliminated Buffalo in three games. But Miller kept coming to the rink and showing up when it mattered. His team was able to rally around him and pulled out an inspiring Game Four win on Wednesday. Miller has been huge for the Sabres since the postseason began and is easily the team’s Conn Smythe winner.

Two Miller saves from this year’s run will forever stand out in my mind because they exemplified what he has meant to this team:

1. Round One. Game Five. You know the save I’m talking about. It was right there on the front page of the paper the next morning and on the highlight shows all day. With the Sabres squandering a three goal lead heading into the third, the Islanders made it a game, pulling within one with 6:53 remaining in regulation. The game was put on the shoulders of Miller, who made a career-defining save with under a minute to play. Former Sabre and current villain Miroslav Satan cut in on goal with twelve seconds left and seemingly deked Miller out to put in the tying goal. But Miller’s positioning and fundamentals are so good, that it’s very hard to completely take him out of any play. While on his back, Miller’s outstretched glove smothered the shot and the Sabres held on for the win. Miller doesn’t make that save and the entire series could have been turned on its ear.

2. The stick save in overtime yesterday. Simply unbelievable. I was watching from the other end of the ice, and all I was able to see were bodies in front and sticks slapping away at an invisible puck. I had a sick feeling in my stomach that the red light was going to be shining bright any moment. It’s an awful feeling to watch your season possibly go down the drain in an instant. I was like Rory Fitzpatrick, unable to find the puck in my skates in last year’s Game Seven as Rod Brind’amour put home the winning goal, only I couldn’t see where the puck was because of the chaos in front of Miller. The red light was going to be the determining factor for me. And then the puck came out and we started back down the ice. It wasn’t over yet. I didn’t know what happened or how that puck didn’t find the back of the net. It was right there for Ottawa’s taking. The Jumbotron’s replay of the save was brief and I thought I saw Miller’s stick bat that away but I still wasn’t sure. No way he stopped that shot. But he did, and the team was still alive, if only for a few more minutes. Two bad bounces cost the Sabres two games in the Conference Finals. Other than that, I don’t know what else you can ask for from Ryan Miller.

Miller gave his team a chance to win every night, much like Hasek did in the late nineties. Sure the team in front of Miller is more skilled, but they don’t have the defense-first attitude of those Goathead teams. The Ryan Miller Sabres have been free-wheeling offensively, which makes it all the more important to have consistently solid goaltender if “The System” breaks down. I believe Miller has the potential to be a better goaltender in the playoffs than Hasek was when he was here. However, we still haven’t seen Miller advance past the Conference Finals to get a shot at the championship that eluded Hasek while he was in Buffalo. The window may be closed this year, but I have a feeling this won’t be the last time we see Ryan Miller have success in the postseason.

The Legend of Chris Drury also continued to grow on Saturday. When Chris Drury took that puck to the face in the third period and skated off for repairs, there was no question that he was coming back. The biggest concern in the building was whether or not he’d be back by the end of regulation. And that’s what Drury brings to the table. That is what he means to his hockey club. There was no way he would allow anyone to shut him down. Stop the bleeding, stitch it up, get me back out there. That’s Drury’s mentality. And as fans, we’ve come to expect it. I was watching the bench just as closely as I was the play on the ice to see when he’d make his return. His team needed him and there was no way he was going to let them down. We believed Drury would not only come back, but would touch the ice and make an impact. After all, if you’re on the ice than you had better give it your all because anything less is unacceptable. It’s that mind-set that has allowed the fans of Buffalo to change from pessimistic naysayers to optimistic dreamers like never before.

Of course Drury returned to the bench. It just took him a little longer than we expected, rejoining his teammates just after overtime began, but he came back. On his first shift in overtime, wearing what looked like a mouth guard straight out of an orthodontist’s office, the puck came to Drury in front of the Ottawa net and the Sabres just failed to score. The guy sitting two seats away from me leaned over to his wife and said, “How storybook would that have been?

That’s when it hit me. We don’t have storybooks in Buffalo. Buffalo has nice stories where the hero always falls short. We always fall short. But instead of expecting the Sabres to miss that shot, as the puck slid across the crease, we expected the red light to go on. We believed. That’s what this Sabres team has done for us. That’s what all of the miserable defeats have done to us. One day, that red light will go on for us. We’ll get that bounce or catch that pass or make that kick. But not this year. The story is over and we don’t have that fairy tale ending. The Red Sox had to wait 86 years, the White Sox’s drought lasted 88 years, and the Cubs are still waiting for their first title since 1908. I pray that the people of Buffalo don’t have to wait that long.

So what’s next? We don’t know and only time will tell. Briere and Drury are both free agents and it’s clear that the four-man rotation of defenseman Ruff used in the final two games isn’t going to cut it come next season. Special teams will need retooling and possibly their own coach. There are some key unrestricted free agents on the market, including not only Briere and Drury, but Ryan Smyth, Jason Blake, Bill Guerin, and Scott Gomez, as well. And oh yeah, both Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff are essentially free agents. Getting them under contract first should be the top priority of Tom Golisano and Larry Quinn.

While we may not know what the coming months have in store, we can be sure of one thing: as long as Ryan Miller is between the pipes for the Buffalo Sabres, we have a shot at being a contender every year.