They did it. Discarding their miniscule chances and unflattering predictions, the Buffalo Sabres warranted the privilege of joining the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins as the third Northeast Division entree into the postseason. Nathan Gerbe’s two goals, the second of which was likely sparked by Dan Carcillo’s agitating antics, brought an official berth as the Philadelphia Flyers were content with sharing a point apiece themselves. Thomas Vanek took care of the rest with an overtime goal deserving of ending any game. With a game to spare, Buffalo booked its place in the first round and months ago, that was considered an impossible mission.
While the Vancouver Canucks started their 40th campaign in the league with five losses in seven tries, they won six in a row to get back on their feet. After downing the Ottawa Senators, Buffalo was hit for 17 goals in a five-game losing streak and didn’t rebound immediately as Vancouver did. Leaves change colours and slowly fall off trees in October; the Buffalo Sabres were mirroring the signs of the autumn season. Players faces came off as depressed and their bodies hunched over in defeat.
Jason Pominville was rammed into the boards from behind by Niklas Hjalmarsson before the season was a week old. Carted off the ice on a stretcher and later diagnosed with a concussion, Pominville recuperated quickly and Colin Campbell suspended Hjalmarsson for two games. Making for a twisted coincidence, Buffalo was scheduled to play in Chicago on the day the defenseman’s suspension expired. Long portrayed in the media as a team that does not protect its own, the Blackhawks gave this accusation further ammunition. Not only was Hjalmarsson untouched and the score unsettled, the Sabres didn’t even have the mettle to win out one of the meetings. It was a slap in the face for an organization beginning a landmark year.
Thanks to Jhonas Enroth, the first consecutive victories were earned in November, as the 22-year-old played admirably in a 2-0-1 march where every start eclipsed 60 minutes. By no means was this an enthralling streak, but it was a starting point and believe it or not, Buffalo gradually got better. Thanks to Vanek, HSBC Arena took in a long-awaited home win on the 13th of the month and the loyalists got a second on the next try. Appearances can be deceiving, but unless you were a back-up netminder, – for a time, the sole group the Sabres could chew up and spit out – Buffalo was typically easy pickings.
Positioned well below their standards, the club was dealt a cruel blow prior to Christmas. Derek Roy, easily the most valuable player through 35 games, fell awkwardly and tore his quadriceps tendon. His season finished and with Buffalo barely hanging in, head coach Lindy Ruff showed resolve aplenty. Trusting his players fully, including youngsters Gerbe, Tyler Ennis, Mike Weber, Luke Adam, and Mark Mancari, Ruff didn’t lose sight of the big picture. With an excess of three months remaining, time was available for the 15-18-4 record to be improved.
When Weber’s fatal give-away in December allowed Nathan Horton to bury an equalizer and force overtime, – where the Sabres would be defeated – blame wasn’t placed on the defenseman. His coach knew mistakes happen and believed in him, just like he placed faith in everyone else. Receiving poor luck and mourning the loss of their top center, Buffalo’s right to exercise excuses presented itself. But the coach and his team refused to mail it in and give up, nearly tripling their win column from January onward, writing up a 28-11-6 fairytale. Above all else, the coaching staff stressed the value of shielding the net by collapsing coolly and blocking shots.
‘Cutting it close’ doesn’t remotely describe their accomplishments: 21 wins by a one-goal margin, ten overtime victories, five shootout triumphs, nine overtime losses, and a single shootout defeat. That means that 25 of the 82 matches required extra time and the 15 wins tied Atlanta and Pittsburgh to beat out the rest of the league – the Thrashers worked the most overtime shifts, 27. Surging back into the playoff picture, the Sabres worked as a single unit with one heartbeat and one soul. You can’t come this far after originally burying yourself, by having a minority do the heavy lifting.
Terry Pegula’s purchase of the team in February paid off, but the ownership change played second fiddle to Ruff’s responsible work that already pushed Buffalo into looking sharper. Destiny called, as the Sabres took down Philadelphia to earn the seventh seed and a ticket to meet the very same Flyers in round one. Having known the feeling of scraping together a postseason berth from the previous year, Philadelphia was up against a club that did it one day sooner in 2011.
In a series that went to seven matches, – six of them tightly contested – Philadelphia outclassed, outworked, and outplayed Buffalo in the deciding affair. At other times, a coach would be ashamed of his group for being outshot 16-2 in the first period of a do-or-die fixture and deservedly losing; this didn’t qualify. Think about it; the Sabres were believed to be obsolete in December and this spelt trouble. Commonly perceived as a talented team that went where Ryan Miller propelled them, the team let its performances do the talking. Enroth’s 9-2-2 dossier demonstrated how a worthy back-up netminder – sorry Patrick Lalime – can be handed the baton assuredly.
Perhaps the feeling of dependability on Miller came back in the postseason, as the Vezina Trophy winner forcefully locked down the Philadelphia offense twice. But keep in mind what the Sabres were dealing with; these Flyers landed within an inch of the Stanley Cup less than a year ago. Their experience, stemming from two five-game closures and a terrific comeback against Boston, had the final say. Many of the Sabres’ more youthful players acquired playoff experience in 2010; however, this was their first game seven finale. The pressure and feeling of the postseason isn’t taught, it’s lived, and the same goes for a winner-take-all conclusion. That Buffalo pressed a heavily-favoured club, not just in this round but also the whole tournament, to the edge of the cliff warrants appreciation.
Lindy Ruff reflected on the gratitude he felt towards his players, proclaiming that they gave him everything they had for almost four months. As modest as those comments were, the coach deserves praise because it also comes down to him getting the forwards, defensemen, and goaltenders to perform with a purpose. Players won’t compete with full heart for anyone behind a bench, but Ruff believed in these men and they in turn believed in him as a coordinator.
And that’s why he’s been employed by the same organization for 13 years running.