You don't have to love Sabres, but at least what they represent
OTTAWA -- Up here in Canada, a place that will be less gripped with hockey fever than you might think as the NHL once again stretches its playoff season absurdly into June, there is only one professional league that includes only Canadian teams.
That is the Canadian Football League, now reduced to a rump of eight teams, none of which is in the nation's capital, Ottawa, which allows the folks there to focus mostly on their beloved Senators.
Ottawa's CFL squad was once called the Rough Riders, which allowed many unfamiliar with the general idiosyncrasies of being from the Great White North to snicker, since, at the time, there was another team called the Roughriders (one word) based in Regina, Saskatchewan.
So you had a league, then of nine teams, with two of them going by basically the same nickname. No explanation to offer you, really.
Still, it's long been said the Saskatchewan Roughriders, for reasons of history and location and Cubs-like, adorable lack of success, are every CFL fan's second-favorite team. If your team couldn't do it, you pulled for the Riders.
In a different way, and hold your cards and letters until this notion is fully explained, it's the opinion of this corner that the Phoenix Suns should be every NBA fan's second-favorite team and the Buffalo Sabres should be held in similar regard by those who believe the sun rises and sets on their favorite NHL club.
Why? Well, they are two teams in their respective leagues that produce fun and creativity and excitement at all costs, ignoring the somber beliefs of more serious thinkers who believe "defense wins championships" and "winning ugly" are akin to Commandments 1 and 2 in pro sport.
NFL fans, just maybe, once saw Dan Fouts, Chuck Muncie and the rest of the San Diego Chargers in the same way.
Screw winning at any cost. We're going to do this our way. We're going to draw up plays in the sand every once in a while, you know, make it up as we go along. Some days, it'll produce a Van Gogh; other days not so much.
Maybe you buy this concept I'm selling, maybe you don't. Maybe you're still stuck on the Rough Riders versus Roughriders schematic.
But for hockey fans that do get it, it was indeed good news the Buffalo Sabres avoided elimination Wednesday night at the hands of the aforementioned Senators, nearly blowing a three-goal lead before hanging on by Ryan Miller's skinny fingernails to a 3-2 triumph in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Sens had won the previous three games and more than 20,000 fans came to Scotiabank Place anticipating a celebration, expecting Ottawa to finish off a Buffalo team that seemed hopelessly confused and not at all itself up to that point.
The Sabres led the NHL in scoring during the regular season, and were the league's most identifiable shake-and-bake outfit. The new rules and rule interpretations coming out of the league's 2004-05 lockout were mostly meant to encourage offense, and the Sabres were the team that seemed most willing to push those new boundaries.
This season, the encouraging offensive numbers dipped, and during these playoffs, they dipped even more to the point that more than a few players were starting to ask why they'd had to relearn their craft to fit within the "new" NHL. It was almost like the disappointment of the '70s after the idealism and activism of the '60s dried up.
But the Sabres still persisted; or at least, still wanted to play offense and deliver a brand of hockey more stylish than grinding in nature. As the overall environment seemed to suffocate offense, the Sabres found their playoff play and results more inconsistent than during the regular season, when they put together a record better than every other team. But they kept moving along, first beating the Islanders, then the Rangers.
Against the Sens, however, the Sabres suddenly found themselves to be their own worst enemies, coughing up the puck time and time again while trying to be more fancy than simple. Suddenly, they seemed too small; maybe their approach a poor fit if capturing the Stanley Cup was the ultimate objective.
Had they gone down in four straight to Ottawa, those who view Buffalo's approach as too risky and prefer a more conservative, defensive approach would have had solid evidence to say you just couldn't embrace the Buffalo way. A league in which two-thirds of the teams already would rather lose 2-1 than try to win 5-4 would thus lose a valuable rebel. The Sabres might still believe in speed, imagination and creativity, but it would be hard to win new converts if they went four and out.
But by winning Game 4, the Sabres at least forced the hockey world to wait another game before making its final judgment.
That's a good thing.
To be fair, the Senators can get up and down the rink in a hurry, too, and they were second to the Sabres in scoring during the regular season. But the Sabres represent something in a league that was strangled by defense before the lockout, and may be en route to a similar destination now.
A second Dead Puck Era looms just around the corner, not good news for a league that sees its revenues go up only when ticket prices are hiked in individual markets. Already, the notion of moving to larger nets is winning more and more supporters, and the low-scoring nature of these playoffs will bring others to the conclusion that, in order to preserve some sense of hockey as an offensive sport (not soccer), something drastic will have to be done. Again.
How much did the Sabres really accomplish by winning Game 4? Hard to say. They had to put Derek Roy, Chris Drury and Tim Connolly together on a makeshift line to do it, sit butter-fingered defenseman Dmitri Kalinin, tell blueliner Jaroslav Spacek his extensive playoff experience was worth only two third-period shifts and have Thomas Vanek play less and less as the night went on.
Coach Lindy Ruff pushed his boys to the limit and used up his bag of tricks. The Sabres did get pretty goals from Roy and Maxim Afinogenov; and, at least in Game 4, it was the Ottawa blue-line corps that seemed a little more jittery with the puck, more prone to errors.
We'll see how much it meant in Saturday's matinee match, but the Sabres are still alive. If they can make this more of a series, it will preserve to some degree their belief that there is a way to be successful without banging the puck off the glass and having five players skating backward through the neutral zone when the enemy has the puck behind its own net.
This league desperately needs the variety the Sabres bring to the party, and it would be nice if a few other teams decided to go heavy on offense, too. In these playoffs, the action has been dense and industrious with every inch of ice a battleground, which is all good. But just as contrasting styles make prize fights, so too does having too many NHL teams playing the same conservative way produce something stultifying rather than inspiring.
You don't have to want the Sabres to win the Stanley Cup or even this series to understand there is benefit to having them around the NHL, just as the NBA benefits from the improvisational Suns and the NFL once needed Don Coryell's high-octane, go-for-broke aerial approach.
The Roughriders or Rough Riders? OK, that's a different thing altogether.
Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."
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