The Buffalo Sabres wrapped up the first President's Cup in franchise history on Saturday, securing the National Hockey League's best regular-season record with a game to spare.
Saturday's 2-0 win over Washington gave the Sabres 113 points, appropriately tying them with their 1974-75 ancestors for the most the team has ever recorded. The victory, their 53rd, set another Buffalo standard.
All of which, thanks to the gruesome realities of the modern sports culture, will mean absolutely nothing should Buffalo stumble and lose four games in the first round of the postseason.
Or the second.
Or the third.
Or maybe even the fourth.
After surprisingly reaching the Eastern Conference Finals last year, where they fell in a gripping Game 7 to the eventual Stanley Cup champions from Carolina, then tearing through the 2006-07 campaign as the NHL's best from beginning to end, anything short of the first true championship in Western New York's professional sporting history is going to be a crashing let-down.
That is not fair. That is not reasonable. It just is.
You only have to look back one season to see how incredibly little regular-season points mean once the best-of-sevens start. Detroit cruised through 2005-06 with 58 wins and 124 points (five wins and 11 points more than this year's Sabres) and entered the playoffs with a roster loaded with veteran playoff experience.
Once there, the Red Wings got dumped by Edmonton, a team that lost as many games as it won.
And it's not as if that were some kind of fluke. Detroit also won the President's Cup in the season before the lockout, only to get wiped out in the second round by Calgary.
In 2002-03, Ottawa's 113 points were the NHL's most, but the Senators lost to eventual Cup winner New Jersey in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The last time a team earned the most regular-season points and went on to win the Stanley Cup was 2001-02, when the Red Wings managed the trick with some guy named Dominik Hasek recording six playoff shutouts and little-known coach Scotty Bowman behind the bench.
A cynical Sabres fan might suggest that it would have been nice if Hasek and Bowman had been able to secure the hardware during their Buffalo stays. Both have since retired, though as usual, Hasek later unretired. Hasek could present the final barrier to the Sabres' first Cup win. After a couple of injury-plagued seasons with Detroit and Ottawa, he stayed healthy this year and played in 56 games, recording a 2.05 goals-against-average, the league's second-best.
That possibility assumes both Buffalo and Detroit winning four games per round for the first three series and Hasek's groin muscles remaining intact. So there's plenty of time before anybody has to worry about the possibility of the Dominator skating around HSBC Arena, holding the Stanley Cup over his head.
Of more immediate concern is that first round.
Nobody expected much of anything from the Islanders during Ted Nolan's first season as an NHL coach since he got squeezed out in Buffalo a decade ago, particularly after a series of seemingly goofy moves by owner Charles Wang, including a bizarre reshuffling of the front office and signing goalie Rick DiPietro to a 15-year contract, the longest in NHL history.
But like Nolan's 1996-97 Sabres, this year's Islanders have drastically overachieved. With Jason Blake, Mike Sillinger, Miroslav Satan and Viktor Kozlov each netting at least 25 goals, Ryan Smyth arriving from Edmonton at the trade deadline, and Alexei Yashin, a disappointment for most of his Long Island career, contributing down the stretch, the Islanders present a formidable No. 8 seed.
Their late surge was particularly unlikely, since it came with third-stringer Wade Dubielewicz in goal after DiPietro suffered a concussion last month.
But there's a good reason Buffalo was the first team to secure a playoff berth and the Islanders were the last. Four Sabres -- co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, along with Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville -- scored at least 30 goals, led by Vanek's 42.
Buffalo got strong offensive contributions from each of its lines throughout the schedule, and when a freakish run of injuries hit, call-ups from Rochester like Drew Stafford and Clarke MacArthur stepped in to keep the Sabres ahead of the Eastern Conference pack, if only just.
Injuries also ravaged the defensive corps, but Buffalo enters the playoffs as close to full strength as it has been all season both up front and on the blue line. And after a couple of relatively shaky weeks, goalie Ryan Miller looks like he's peaking at precisely the right moment.
The Sabres wrapped up the President's Cup with two of their finest overall performances in weeks, smothering Pittsburgh 4-1 on Tuesday, clipping Boston 4-2 two nights later and shutting down Washington 2-0 on Saturday, Miller's second shutout of the season.
Buffalo not only enters this year's Stanley Cup tournament healthy, this year's Sabres earned vital experience while coming up short last year. If not for an epidemic of postseason injuries to defensemen that rivaled this winter's decimation of the front lines, the discussion would be about winning a second Cup, not the first.
The best Sabres teams of the past fall into two categories.
There were the wildly talented squads of 1974-75 and 1979-80 that overwhelmed opponents through the regular schedule and early playoff rounds, but were eventually outclassed by the eventual Stanley Cup winners.
Then there were the 1997-98 and '98-99 versions, which had Hasek, Michael Peca and supporting casts that were gritty, but not quite good enough.
These Sabres have both the talent and the team concept ingrained by Lindy Ruff, the most successful coach in Buffalo's hockey history. Self-esteem issues aside, there's no reason to worry inordinately about the first round. Or the next three, for that matter.
The pick here is that Buffalo wraps up the first round in five games. And in the interests of inflated expectations and doing so way earlier than necessary, here's another prediction:
Hasek will be in the building when the Stanley Cup is awarded in June. But he's going to have to watch members of his old team carry it around.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||April 10 2007|