Niagara Gazette

March 30, 2008

TIM SCHMITT: Sunday showed opportunity was ripe for Sabres


By Tim Schmitt

BUFFALO — If nothing else, the sigh that was the Sabres home schedule ended with a smile Sunday. Youngsters Andrej Sekera and Mike Weber were part of an embrace after playing integral parts in the winning goal, and the guy with the league’s highest salary (Thomas Vanek) made a pretty pass to set the table.

Those thinking about renewing their season tickets for next year, applying the hefty bill from unused playoff tickets to their deposit, might have one more positive memory to tip the scales.

Even with Sunday’s 2-1 overtime win, though, the Sabres finished the home slate with 21 losses in 41 games. Hardly a mark that instills fear in the opposition.

And what’s really disappointing about Sunday’s narrow win — one that allowed the visiting Bruins to sneak out of town with a point — was the lack of emotion from a pair of teams who should have had the building buzzing.

The Bruins entered Sunday’s snoozer in eighth place, but trailed both the Rangers and Philadelphia by a single point. Fifth-seeded Ottawa stood just a point above that, and New Jersey was just another point up the wall.

That meant Boston came in just three points out of home ice for the opening round of the playoffs.

And while the Sabres came out flat, the Bruins flat-out stunk.

Granted, Boston was on the tough end of a two-day stretch, directly on the heels of a 4-0 home win over Ottawa on Saturday, but there was plenty to play for.

And the Sabres shouldn’t have needed any motivation. Still mathematically alive at sunrise, you’d think Buffalo’s pride would demand a big effort after blown leads in two of their last three games.

So much for the big push. The emotion. The scrappiness of a team facing its final dawn.

Instead, both sides looked as if they’d already packed for summer vacation.

Until the final two minutes, Buffalo largely walked through the motions, and the crowd at HSBC knew it. Aside from some booing of Zdeno Chara, those who showed up could have caught some shuteye. Someone in the press box asked if it would be wrong to put the Davidson-Kansas game on the JumboTron while the teams were playing. It wasn’t a bad idea.

Once again, the Bruins proved they’re mediocre at best. Yet they’re still a good week away from pulling out the fourth seed for next week’s postseason. And at that point, who knows what happens?

Ottawa’s goalie issues have left them teetering, Jersey has limped home and Pittsburgh’s core hasn’t won a playoff series. And don’t forget that Montreal’s goalie started the season in Hamilton.

What came out of Sunday’s “win,” a game in which the Sabres should have clearly pulled their goaltender in regulation if they believed they had any honest chance of reaching the playoffs, was another missed opportunity in a season filled with them. Lost leads. Lost points. And most important, a lost chance to run the Eastern Conference table.

It’s always hard to predict how things will shake out from year to year, but while previous seasons provided major hurdles for the Sabres before reaching the Cup finals, this year provided the path of least resistance. Two years ago, Ottawa and Carolina finished with 113 and 112 points, respectively. Last year’s New Jersey team had a hot goalie in Martin Brodeur and Ottawa streaked into the playoffs.

But this year, the Eastern Conference field is as weak as it’s been since the lockout. A Sabres team with many of the same pieces as last year’s would have surely been a strong favorite to get back to the Cup finals for just the third time in franchise history.

Instead, Sunday’s game was a shining example of a season that’s not officially through, but essentially lost. And a win over an average Boston team that has legitimate postseason hopes wasn’t really a win.

Contact group sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, ext. 2266.