Coming into work this morning I was greeted with warm sunshine, a cool breeze, and the comfort of knowing the Sabres are still playing hockey. All should be right with the world, but hanging in the back of my head is a cloud of doubt. The knowledge that this could be the last couple games I watch, the fear that Ottawa will be too much for us, that again we will come so close yet so far from our goal. Even with everything around me seeming so perfect, the question Are we ready? looms like a guillotine blade over our season. So in an attempt to remove the cloud and enjoy what I have, I attempted to answer that question.
Why did our season end so abruptly last year and what have we done to overcome it? What do we need to advance this year?
The Sabres mindset coming into the playoffs was one of confidence (bordering on arrogance) and calm. They faced what looked to be an easy match up in the Islanders, but found out that no match up is an easy one. DiPietro came back admirably from injury with heart and fire for a team that needed it. The style of hockey and drive of the Islanders pushed the Sabres as much as they could, but in the end we prevailed. Long Island taught us a hard lesson - this is the playoffs, and every team has players that are all world. After this series, the swagger of the Sabres team was somewhat diminished, but they were ready for their next challenge - the Rangers.
This series started off with a bang. The Sabres were firing on all cylinders and looked to make short work of their 2nd New York rival, but Tom Renney had his boys ready. He obviously watched the film from the previous series, and made the adjustments needed to slow the Sabres. They stumbled in game 2, but managed to prevail. The team again looked confounded by an opponent that completely suffocated their creativity and a goal tender who looked more like a wall than a man. The series went back to New York and it was here the Sabres faced their toughest adversity in the playoffs to date. The struggles they had in game 2 came to the forefront at MSG - soft ice and a hard opponent proved to be a combination the Sabres could not find an answer for. Apprehension increased as the team returned to Buffalo.
Game 5. Again the challenge level increased. The Sabres thought they had the answer. They came out flying at home, but chance after chance was turned aside. Then it happened. Straka scores from the point, long shot over Miller's glove. Was it in? Did I imagine that or did the Sabres just go down in this the most critical game of the year? Play stopped. Another review. There was no way we were getting this one; the puck clearly was in the back of the net. We've been here before, we can do it, we can come back, just keep pushing, it will fall. 91 games this year and we've scored in every one. Surely in this most important game we would find the back of the net. 3 minutes left. Pressing hard, still Lundqvist and the boys turn everything aside. 2 minutes left. Miller looks towards the bench. 1 minute left, Miller out, still the puck won't drop. Whistle blows - icing on New York. 17 seconds left. 17 seconds until we go down 3-2 to New York, back to MSG. One last shot. Drury wins the draw. 10 seconds left. Tim Connolly shoots....save....9 seconds left....Drury takes the rebound, scores short side.
In overtime Max exercises the demons that have plagued him - good in the regular season, missing when it counts. In game 6, the Sabres come at the Rangers hard, Lundqvist shows he's mortal. Hecht and Pominville come out of slumps of their own. The Sabres attack and get rewarded. On to Ottawa.
As I pull into the parking lot thinking about all we've been through, the clouds of doubt slowly fade. Warmth comes in through the sun roof and I sit back and enjoy it for a minute, secure in the knowledge that we've looked the demon of defeat square in the face and told him we will not lose. We will not be beaten. This playoff has not been the prettiest, but like a sword plunged into fire it started off as an unformed lump. With difficulty and strength it has been shaped into a blade. Each game a hammer stoke down, each failure molding this team to where they need to be. Drawn from the heat, left to cool, the blade is ready to cut.