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Friday, May 26, 2006
Updated: May 29, 2:09 PM ET
Briere changes game, attitude with Sabres

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

When the Phoenix Coyotes put him on waivers in 2000 in an attempt to get him to Springfield of the AHL, and every other NHL team passed on him, Daniel Briere heard the phone ringing.

In his head.

"That was kind of a wakeup call," Briere, 28, said in a dressing-room conversation earlier this week after a Buffalo Sabres practice during the Eastern Conference finals.

Daniel Briere
Heading into Friday's Game 4, Daniel Briere leads the Sabres in playoff scoring with seven goals and 10 assists.
Did he need one?

"I think so," he said. "I think it was a little bit of a lack of maturity. Every time I was sent down before that, I was looking to put the blame on someone else -- blame the coach, blame the linemates you're playing with. You're looking for excuses. That last time, I was telling myself, 'The problem is not somewhere else, the problem is you. You have to change your game, change your attitude.'

"That's what did it for me. I was able to go back to the minors and instead of pouting, I went back to Springfield and wanted to show them that I could go on to the NHL. I was lucky that I got another chance to show them what I could do."

Until then, he had been known as talented, yet enigmatic, and was labeled as having tons of unfulfilled potential as he went up and down between the Coyotes and AHL Falcons.

The Quebec Major Junior League's reputation for laissez faire defensive work is well established, but it still was significant that Briere had 170 goals in three seasons with Drummondville and was only the fourth player in league history to lead the league in goals, assists and points in the same season. Maybe it was significant because of his company. The other three were Mario Lemieux, Dale Hawerchuk and Pat LaFontaine.

Yet, in his early years as a pro, he tore up the AHL, but struggled with the transition to the NHL.

He was in danger of being mostly renowned for trying out training with Hugo Girard, the subject of the documentary "Strongman" and a mainstay in the World's Strongest Man competition. Both Girard and Briere are from Gatineau, Quebec.

Briere also was in danger of ending up less famous than the Canadian actor of the same name. (No, that's not the Sabres center playing Francois-Baptiste Marois on those old episodes of "Camera Café" or starring in the movie, "Les Invasions Barbares.") Briere made it back to the Coyotes and eventually went to the Sabres in a deadline deal in 2003 for Chris Gratton, with draft choices also going each way. (Speaking of unrealized potential, the oft-dealt Gratton might lead the league in it.)

Now?

Briere and Chris Drury, 29, alternate wearing the Sabres' "C" and form a complementary one-two center punch and play together on the power play. Neither is effusive, so they fit the frequent NHL model of leadership by example and aura.

Drury has an indisputable track record for finding ways to come through when the spotlight is bright, and Briere seems to be getting into that territory as well during Buffalo's postseason run.

When Briere scored twice and Drury once in the Sabres' Game 3 victory over the Hurricanes, that meant they had combined for 15 goals in Buffalo's postseason. Drury has eight, including five on the power play, and Briere has seven.

"I'm a castaway from Phoenix who got a second chance when I was traded here," Briere said. "They believed in me, gave me the responsibility on and off the ice. As players, that's all you dream of, to have more responsibility. When they told me I would share the captaincy with Chris, after everything he's done in his career, not just in the NHL, but all over, to me that said they had a lot of belief in me. … For me, it's an honor to be mentioned with him, to be a leader of this team."

Even in the Sabres' team picture, both Briere and Drury are wearing the "C." In games, of course, one has to wear the "A" instead. But you get the impression there never will be any debates -- whether among the Sabres, between the two centers, or even in the musing out of outsiders -- about whether this is "Drury's team" or "Briere's team." That's not an issue.

The bigger the games get, the more prone Drury is to score the clutch goals, not bothered at all by the fact that the footage of a chubby kid pitching at Williamsport against young adults from Chinese Tapei has just been shown for the 1,637th time.

And Briere, completely recovered from the sports hernia that kept him out of 24 games in the regular season, is pitching in, too.

"In no way do I see Chris as a threat," Briere said. "We play together on the power play. We played together a few games five-on-five, as well. For me, it's just an honor to be mentioned with him, to be a leader of the team."

With San Jose out, meaning Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have exited the playoffs, the Sabres have the best remaining 1-2 center punch.

"They have to match up against either Chris' or my line, if that's how they want to play," Briere said. "It's great because they can't focus on one line. I look at it like Chris helps me and I help him."

Briere's terrific goal in Game 1 helped set the tone for this series, and he beat Cam Ward with a lifted backhander. After that game in Raleigh, N.C., he noted that that in "the past four, five years, I haven't scored too many on my backhand. For people who've seen my curve in my stick, I can't go on my backhand too often, so I don't know how it got up like that."

After the Sabres' Game 2 road loss, Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff challenged Briere's line -- he plays with Jochen Hecht and J.P. Dumont -- to pick it up. The Canes watched tape, and Briere said they again noticed that the Hurricanes "do things differently a little bit than some other teams, where they collapse hard in front of the net. They like to cut off our play behind the net, as well. We had to switch it up a little bit, change some things."

There's a lot of hockey to be played in this series, of course, and the Canes proved their resilience in the first-round comeback against Montreal. It's entirely possible it could be 2-2 heading back to Carolina, but if the Sabres continue to get production out of Drury and Briere, and their lines, even in alternating games, that adds to the chances of the finals making a return trip to Buffalo.

And it's not even out of line to wonder whether NHL commissioner Gary Bettman would go along with handing the Stanley Cup to the two co-captains at the same time, or if it would just be a matter of which one was wearing the "C" on the right night.

That's a protocol issue the Sabres would love to tackle.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."