Sabres weighed down by pressure of high expectations

Updated: May 2, 2007, 5:05 PM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

NEW YORK -- Is the heavy weight of great expectations beginning to wear on the Presidents' Trophy winning Buffalo Sabres?

There seemed to be some telltale signs of just that during and after the Sabres' 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. The series, which seemed over after the favored Sabres grabbed a 2-0 lead on home ice, is tied and looking a lot different.

"No one said it was going to be easy," said Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, who finished with 26 saves.

Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesBuffalo co-captain Daniel Briere is relishing the pressure put on the Presidents' Trophy winning Sabres.

Miller is right about that. It's never easy to win the Stanley Cup. And, as he and his teammates might be finding out, it's even harder to win it when so many people think you will.

"It can be like carrying a piano on your back," said Rangers veteran Brendan Shanahan, who helped the perennially favored Red Wings to three Cups during nine seasons in Detroit. "You do feel it."

After those many years in Hockeytown, Shanahan is enjoying being on the other side of the expectations game.

"It's fun," says Shanahan, who potted the eventual game winner at the 8:31 mark of the third period. "It's a lot different. I mean, there were a lot of people who didn't think we were going to make the playoffs. In Detroit, we were expected to win every year."

While the wily Shanahan is happy to milk the underdog role, equally savvy Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff isn't buying it.

"We're in a hell of a series," Ruff said. "Don't forget, they were one of the best teams down the stretch. They swept Atlanta in the first round. I never thought that this wouldn't be a tight series."

Ruff's team is making it tighter by failing to bring a full 60-minute effort to the rink. The Sabres weren't their regular-season selves in their first-round series win over the Islanders, who weren't good enough (and didn't get any breaks from the league's video review process) to take advantage.

In this round, the Rangers (who were on the right side of a key video review on Tuesday night) seem more than able to pounce on any chances they might receive.

"I didn't think our battle level was as high as it should have been," said Sabres center Derek Roy, who clanged a shot off his second goalpost behind Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist in as many games. "Maybe we think it's going to be too easy. I think now we know that it isn't going to be."

Miller echoed Roy's feelings.

"Maybe we needed a little desperation in our game," said Miller. "There were moments when we weren't doing everything we can."

I seem to remember hearing those same types of comments from the Sabres in the first round. Still, they seem to be playing in spurts.

Is that a result of the pressure that comes with a Presidents' Trophy? Does that pressure make the legs a little heavier? Do you grip the stick a little tighter?

Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere doesn't think so. In fact, he thinks you have to relish the pressure.

"You earn that pressure by playing well," said Briere, who nearly tied the game with a wraparound attempt with just 17 seconds remaining in regulation time. "You can't hide from it. You have to face it and deal with it."

Briere thought his team was dealing with things a lot better in the final 10 minutes of Game 4. He thinks the Sabres need to take a simpler approach into Friday's Game 5.

"When we started crashing the net in the third period, we got more chances," Briere said. "We have to do that right from the start in the next game."

In Game 5, that suddenly growing pressure will have a place on the Sabres' home bench. Will they overcome it? If they want to keep chasing that silver Cup, they better find a way.

Game notes
After a delay of several minutes, the league's "war room" in Toronto found no conclusive replay to support overturning the on-ice call of no goal on Briere's wraparound attempt in the final seconds of the game. It should be noted that the number of replay angles available changes from game to game depending upon which network broadcasts the game. Some networks use more cameras than others. … Rangers head coach Tom Renney used forward Sean Avery to take three key defensive zone draws in the final minute of the game. On the night, Avery won 8 of 13 faceoffs. New York teammate Blair Betts won 9 of 13 draws. … Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff scratched forward Maxim Afinogenov, replacing him with rookie winger Daniel Paille.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.

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