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Youngsters like Pominville thrive under Ruff's watch

For a long time, NHL coaches used to ascribe to the mushroom theory when it came to young players and the playoffs. Keep them in a cool, dark place, and feed them ... you know ... stuff.

Now, some NHL coaches still believe the best place for youngsters in the postseason is glued to the end of the bench. The exception would be the briefest periods at the most inconsequential moments -- like warm-ups.

Some NHL coaches, of course, are no closer to the playoffs than their remote control.

But there are some who have eschewed that worn-out theory. One of them is Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, whose team is among the final four teams vying for the Stanley Cup.

Youngsters like Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, Paul Gaustad and Jason Pominville have all arrived in Buffalo with varying degrees of expectation. Yet they are highly skilled, and all have made an impact.

What the Sabres have done after the lockout has been a "revelation," said former NHL netminder and current TV analyst Darren Eliot, who covered the Sabres-Rangers semifinal series for Versus and sees the Sabres four times a year as an analyst for the Atlanta Thrashers.

"They're interchangeable at times," Eliot said of the Sabres' young players. "I've never seen so many young players that seem to have the confidence to play, to take risks."

The theory for many coaches come playoff time was that creativity was incompatible with more important qualities, namely defensive responsibility, and that creative offensive freedom had to be earned over time.

But in Rochester, where most of these young Sabres learned their craft under Americans coach and former NHLer Randy Cunneyworth, the message is different. Play the way you know how to play offensively, but make sure you understand the real team game is played in the neutral and defensive zones.

Pominville's path is the most interesting, and ironic, of the bunch.

Pominville's mother is from the Green Bay area, and Pominville's maternal grandfather does drug testing for the NFL's Packers. Pominville's father met his future wife while playing minor pro hockey in the Milwaukee and Green Bay areas.

A native of Repentigny, Quebec, Pominville had a good training camp in the fall of 2005, but because the Sabres had a large group of players on one-way contracts, the team opted to risk losing Pominville on waivers and sent him to Rochester.

"They said, 'We think you might get taken, but that's the risk we have to take,'" Pominville recalled. He drove the 75 miles to Rochester and waited to see what his hockey future might bring.

"I was just waiting, waiting, to see if something was going to happen," he said. "You could end up with Vancouver or any other team. It was weird."

The fact this happened early in the season was a bonus for Pominville. Teams were still sorting out their own lineups. Injuries weren't as much a factor as they are later in the season, when teams are banged up and looking for depth. Twenty-four hours later, Pominville was still with the Sabres.

On Nov. 27, he returned to the big club when the injury bug struck the Sabres, and Pominville didn't look back. Over the final 57 games of the 2005-06 regular season, Pominville surprisingly scored 18 times and finished with 30 points. In the playoffs, he took another step forward with five goals and five assists. His short-handed game-winner in Game 5 of the second round eliminated the favored Ottawa Senators, the team his Sabres will now face in this season's Eastern Conference finals.

Pominville continued to roll this season, scoring 34 times, adding 34 assists and finishing with a plus-25. In the postseason, Pominville has four goals and two assists, including a goal in the Sabres' sixth and deciding game against the New York Rangers last Sunday.

Coach Lindy Ruff was asked if he sometimes shudders at the thought of how close they came to losing such a key contributor for nothing.

"I told Darcy not to do that," Ruff quipped, referencing GM Darcy Regier. "We had some decisions to make. I think our thoughts were exactly like yours, 'Man, I hope we don't lose him.'"

Cunneyworth made it clear to Pominville when he returned to Rochester he had a lot of work ahead of him if he wanted to return to Buffalo anytime soon. And Pominville responded.

"There was a lot of growth there, and there could have been no growth if [he'd] dwelled on the situation," Cunneyworth said. "He was very conscientious about the amount of work that had to go into his game."

Pominville improved his foot speed, learned to use his heavy shot more effectively and excelled at the physical elements of the game.

Is there a sense of satisfaction at having gone to the brink before becoming the player he is?

"It's something I'm definitely happy about," Pominville acknowledged. "A year ago, I don't think a lot of people would have imagined me being where I'm at."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com