MONTREAL – The Buffalo Sabres made some history they didn’t particularly want to make.
With their 3-1 loss Thursday to the Montreal Canadiens, the Sabres became only the third team in NHL history to go from finishing first overall in the regular season standings to finishing out of the playoffs the following year.
The sting of joining the 1969-70 Montreal Canadiens and the 1992-93 New York Rangers in that dubious club was made even worse for head coach Lindy Ruff by the back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference final in the last two years.
“The day you go out is a tough day, but that makes it even tougher,” Ruff said. “Obviously we came a long ways, and we’ve got some young guys who have come a long ways. We’re a young team, but I really felt we should have been in the playoffs regardless of our youth.”
Many people will point to the free agent losses of last year’s co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere and the loss of defenceman Brian Campbell at the trade deadline this year as a primary reason for the Sabres demise, but Ruff isn’t buying it.
“Our youth could have put us in the playoffs,” Ruff said. “I don’t find this a good place to be, regardless of losing players. You’re going to lose players, players are going to come and go, but we were in the playoff picture and we just missed that last step to get in there.”
Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, making his 34th straight start, said the mental strain of knowing practically every game was a must-win over the last month was difficult.
But he feels the experience of going through it will prove valuable for a team that is so young.
“You come that close two years in a row and you feel like you know what it takes to win in those situations, but we have a young team and we didn’t respond in some of those key situations, including myself,” Miller said.
“If you want to spin to next year right now, I think we’re going to be a lot better for it. We’re going to be a really good team, we’ll have a summer to get ready so everybody should be in really good shape and we’re going to know what it takes to win.”
The Sabres can point to any number of reasons for their sudden fall from the top of the standings, starting with the departure of three of their key players from last year. But they also missed Maxim Afinogenov and Tim Connolly to injuries for long stretches of the season, and they got the year off on the wrong foot in the injury department when veteran defenceman Teppo Numminen was lost for the year with a heart condition.
Still, the Sabres made a run after a rough start, at one point winning 15 of 19 games only to follow that up with a 10-game winless streak.
More recently, the Sabres gave up a pair of 3-1 third period leads at home to lose 6-3 to the Ottawa Senators on March 25 and 4-3 in overtime to the Canadiens on March 28, missing out on three points that would have kept them in playoff contention.
“We let some games slip away, the road record down the stretch was good but the home record hurt us,” Ruff said. “You could point to a couple of tough losses at home.”