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Monday, May 21, 2007
Now, Sabres are the ones facing tough offseason questions

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

The irony meter was practically off the charts early Saturday evening.

Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson turned a harmless play into the overtime winner, sending the Senators to their first Stanley Cup finals and their vanquished opponents, the Buffalo Sabres, to the mirror.

A season ago, of course, Alfredsson was turned inside out on a short-handed rush by rookie Jason Pominville in overtime of Game 5 of the second round. A season ago, it was the Senators who were once again sent home empty-handed and the Sabres who moved on to the expectation of bigger and better things.

The injury-ravaged Sabres ultimately lost in seven games to Stanley Cup champion Carolina, but that did little to diminish the optimism surrounding the club. That optimism seemed well-founded as the Sabres rushed out to a franchise-best start this season and led the Eastern Conference wire to wire to finish with their first Presidents' Trophy.

But the playoffs were a different story altogether.

Unaccustomed to the burden of expectation, the Sabres wobbled slightly in defeating a wholly overmatched New York Islanders team. The New York Rangers pushed the Sabres into a tighter-checking game and nearly pulled off the upset, but the Sabres finally bested the Blueshirts in six games with the final five decided by one goal, two in overtime.

By the time the rematch with the Senators rolled around, the roles of a season ago were entirely reversed.

The Sabres seemed tentative and lost the first two games at home. The Senators then dominated in Game 3, winning 1-0 thanks only to Ryan Miller's heroics in the Buffalo net.

It has taken Ottawa the better part of a decade to take that step from expectation to realization. The challenge now for the Sabres is to shorten their own journey.

It won't be easy. Not with a new salary cap era that will almost certainly force them to cut ties with gifted center Daniel Briere.

Although Briere's point totals -- 15 points in 16 postseason games -- are impressive, he seemed less effective against Ottawa, unable to find the space and time that were more abundant during the regular season.

The belief has been the Sabres will have to make a choice between Briere and the team's other co-captain, Chris Drury, this offseason. Both will be unrestricted free agents and both will command yearly salaries in the $6 million range.

Chris Drury
Chris Drury, who returned to finish Game 5 after taking a puck to the mouth, led the Sabres with eight postseason goals.

Had the Sabres won a Stanley Cup or even advanced to a Stanley Cup final, there might have been a chance both would have taken less money to keep the team together. It happened when Colorado GM Pierre Lacroix managed to keep Rob Blake, Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy in the fold when all three could have become unrestricted free agents a few weeks after winning the Stanley Cup in 2001.

But with the Sabres' disappointing exit, the prospects of such a deal will be diminished on both sides of the fence.

Drury seems to give the Sabres more of what they ultimately were lacking this postseason -- grit, determination, the ability to produce in the clutch. Just look at Game 5. He took a puck to the face in the third period and then returned in overtime after being stitched up.

There just weren't enough like him, although the Sabres' future could still be exceptionally bright.

"I think there's a lot to be proud of. Nobody wanted to lose, and there is going to be a grave feeling of letting everybody down, letting our fans down," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said after Saturday's game. "The fans' support has been absolutely tremendous, and the expectations were sky high, and that room was as quiet as quiet can be. But it was a team that -- they never gave up. You know, there was various times that things could have turned and really got sour, but they always picked themselves up."

Drew Stafford, a gifted rookie, couldn't even get into the lineup during the conference finals until Game 5. Nathan Paetsch is another talented young defender who was a healthy scratch. Thomas Vanek, Maxim Afinogenov, Derek Roy -- all players who excelled during the regular season but lacked consistency throughout the playoffs -- will mature and get better.

The Sabres' vaunted offensive depth turned to dust against a relentless Senators team that provided a textbook mixture of skill and team defense, but Buffalo will remain a formidable opponent next season. Whatever changes other teams make between now and next fall, the Sabres should still be in line to win a second Presidents' Trophy.

Then again, that's what folks said season after season in Ottawa, where the talented Senators always seemed to find a way to stub their toe on the next step.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.