As the final seconds ticked down, fans around me clinked glasses and nodded their heads slowly: the Sabres were Northeast Division champs.
There was a sense of closure in Tuesday’s game that is easy to quantify. The Sabres closed the door on Ottawa and locked up a top three seeding in the playoffs, at home no less. Four home playoff games in at least the first round, and a chance to give the team a loud send-off for the final three home games of the year.
It was a night to celebrate, but after a season full of questions and lukewarm feelings that celebration felt decidedly muted. Fans have struggled to get a read on this team, and despite the accomplishment many still question if this team really has it.
That is the question, isn’t it? What does a division title mean?
For one, it means they are the best team in the Northeast Division. Some say is a relatively weak division to lead, but the Southeast is by far the weakest division in the conference. The Sabres beat out playoff teams like Ottawa and Boston, and played well against the Western Conference this season. They are a legitimate division winner, and a deserving top three seed in the East.
Still, much of the season was spent questioning this team. What are they without Ryan Miller? Why don’t they score goals like they used to? Why didn’t they trade for more players, or what happens if Tyler Myers goes down? Why can’t they beat Ottawa like they used to? Remember how good Chris Drury was in the Olympics?
These are the questions we’ve spent our time on in a season where Miller is the favorite for the Vezina and Myers leads the Calder race. In hindsight that seems crazy, doesn’t it? The Sabres are a good weekend away from locking up the second seed in the Conference, and fans are wondering if Chris Drury would be a good fit on the Sabres?
There are two sides to this whole thing that need to be addressed here. The first is this: winning a division title is indeed a good thing. It addresses one of the most embarrassing facts about this team: for a team with so much history, they sure don’t win much of anything.
Stanley Cup wins aside, when you have almost as many retired numbers as you have division and conference title banners, you haven’t exactly proven your winning ways as a franchise. Those things the Leafs fans say in the bathroom are true: the Sabres haven’t done a whole lot of winning, and when they do it is over concentrated periods. The banners themselves may not mean all that much, but there aren’t many of them to be proud of.
However, that’s the second part of all this: those banners mean nothing.
I don’t need to remind anyone that the Sabres have never won the Stanley Cup, but I think remembering that is important when you think about all the “great” teams we’ve cheered for. No matter how many wins they racked up in the regular season, no matter how many good memories we have from those playoff runs, none of those teams have accomplished anything of real value. They’ve never won it all.
In a way, that fact is what makes it logically incorrect to compare this team to any of the previous incarnations. Those teams have never won anything, why do we want the current team to have the same characteristics if we know it doesn’t work?
The best example of this is the 2007 Sabres, the last “good team” we’ve seen here in Buffalo. The lineup was absolutely loaded with talent and cruised through the regular season, but in the playoffs they just didn’t have it. It was a team that peaked too early, and didn’t get the push you expected from the Ottawa Brawl.
No matter how much we can talk about Drury and Briere and all the players on that team, it was flawed. Fatally. They didn’t have what it takes to beat Ottawa in the ECFs, let alone take down the Ducks. It was a team that deserved the banners it won and nothing more. We know that now, so what are we still holding on to?
It’s okay to like that team, and it’s certianly okay to love the team before it, but they didn’t get it done. For all the great things we say about the first post-Lockout Sabres, they didn’t get it done either. Blame injuries or a lack of defensive depth, or maybe just fate itself; but that team didn’t win anything at all, not even a banner that doesn’t count.
It’s okay to gauge a team against the ones that have come before it, but with the Sabres there really isn’t much to compare. We’ve never had a team really worth the comparison, really. In fact, I think much of the bad feelings that surround this team come from comparisons to previous Sabres squads. If you ask me, the sooner we forget about the past the better.
For this team, the comparisons that are going to matter are against three teams in the Eastern Conference, and hopefully one in the West. If not, then they deserve exactly what they’ve already earned: A dusty sheet that looks nice, but means nothing.