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HOCKEY: SABRES NEED TO FIND THEIR VOICE FOR FINAL, DESPERATE PLAYOFF PUSH

By David Staba

Sure, things seem grim for the Buffalo Sabres.

The cynical may argue that Sunday's 2-1 overtime win over Boston only prolonged the agony of watching last year's President's Trophy winners splash into the cesspool populated by teams incapable of qualifying for the most permissive playoffs in professional sports.

And yes, it does seem rather unlikely that the Sabres will win all three of their remaining games, on the road no less, starting Tuesday night in Toronto, while either the Bruins, Philadelphia or the New York Rangers go winless in the final week of the regular season and Washington falters almost as badly.

The cold reality is that only eight teams from the Eastern Conference of the National Hockey League qualify for the postseason and Buffalo, as of press time, sits five points behind the Bruins, Flyers and Rangers, who currently occupy the last three playoff positions, and two points back of the ninth-place Capitals.

But if the ongoing presidential campaign has taught us anything, it's that technicalities like predetermined rules and time-honored methods of keeping score are for suckers.

Clearly, the Sabres' strengths do not include scoring more goals than the other team on any given night. So to make the case that Buffalo deserves a spot in the playoffs, management needs to be proactive, set the agenda and, above all, slag the other guys.

Due to the success of the last two seasons, the franchise's hierarchy has grown accustomed to coasting into the first round, and beyond. This time, the Sabres need to go directly to the NHL's Board of Governors and make the argument that, despite the outcomes of hundreds of games over the past six months, they have earned another shot.

Since Larry Quinn has probably been too busy trying to convince Tom Golisano that it's actually good for business to miss the playoffs to think of this angle, I offer the following list of talking points:

1. REDEFINE SUCCESS: The archaic system of awarding regular-season points doesn't really mean all that much.

So what if the Bruins, Flyers, Rangers and Capitals have each won three games more than Buffalo? Some of those "victories" came way back in October, when the Sabres were still looking around the locker room and saying things like, "Hey, where's Drury?"

It's what you've done lately that counts. And Buffalo is 5-3-2 in its last 10 games, for a total of 12 points. That's one point more than Boston and just as many as the Rangers over the same span. So, if you look at it that way, the Sabres are tied for the last playoff spot! (We'll ignore Washington's 8-2-0 streak, because we're going to pretend the Capitals don't exist right now.)

Winning at home is crucial in the playoffs, right? Well, Buffalo has 46 points at home, two more than the Flyers and the same total as the Bruins. (OK, so Philly still has two home games remaining, while Boston has one and the Sabres none, but for anyone to point that out would clearly be an unfair personal attack.)

And forget for a moment about tangential issues like goaltending and defense and penalty-killing. Isn't hockey really all about scoring goals? Of course it is. Adopting that metric, the Sabres aren't just in the playoffs, they're the third seed in the East!

GO NEGATIVE: Everybody knows that the only reason the Rangers and Flyers have gotten this far is because they stole Chris Drury and Daniel Briere away last summer.

Isn't that just like the liberal elite of the National Hockey League, spending all kinds of money to deny hardworking, blue-collar fans in places like Buffalo their right to enjoy top talent performing for less than market value?

Do you think it's a coincidence that every single one of the teams presently "leading" the Sabres in the "standings" just happens to come from a media market bigger than Western New York? Yeah, me neither. (How dare you try to say that every team in the NHL comes from a bigger media market? Shame on you for trying to change the subject.)

Has anyone else noticed that the Rangers, Bruins and Flyers each have picked up 11 points by losing in overtime or in a shootout, meaning that they have advanced toward the playoffs via abject failure? Take those points away, and Buffalo is six points ahead of all three. (Yes, the Sabres have 12 overtime losses. But they deserve those points, because they're from a small market.)

And what kind of name is "Canadiens," anyway? Did you know they refuse to wear an American flag patch on their sweaters? Why do they hate this great country so much?

EXPERIENCE MATTERS: OK, so the Penguins and Canadiens have looked impressive with their elegant skating and flashy passing while wrapping up their respective divisions and the two top seeds in the East, inspiring hope in their naively idealistic fans.

But such messianic appeal won't mean much in the face of the brutal attacks sure to come from the best of the Western Conference. It will take a team with a proven record of accomplishment to triumph over the dastardly likes of Detroit, San Jose or Anaheim. They'll do anything to win and it will take a foe just as morally compromised to stop them.

I ask you, who has more meaningful experience than the Sabres? After all, they made it to the Conference Finals in each of the past two seasons. And I'll never forget when they won the Stanley Cup in '99 and the whole area turned out for that terrific parade through downtown Buffalo. (What's that? They didn't win the Cup? Did I say that? So I guess I misspoke. Geez. I'm only human, which may come as a revelation to some of you.)

NEVER, EVER GIVE UP: Some in the media have called on the Sabres to concede, to bow to mathematical inevitability.

I say such talk is not only a slap to democracy, it is contrary to the human spirit.

Did the defenders of the Alamo give up when outnumbered and surrounded by Santa Ana's army? Bad example.

Did the French just give up right away after watching German Panzers circle outside the Maginot Line?

Oh, that's right. They did.

That's just all the more reason for the Sabres to fight on, even if they lose one more game or all three to keep pushing for the playoffs and standing up for the rights of their supporters.

To do any less would be un-American.


David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 1 2008