“He said you need good players,” the Buffalo Sabres general manager said, recalling a conversation with Arbour, who coached the New York Islanders to four titles in the 1980s. The answer wasn’t enough to satisfy Regier.
“I thought, ‘Oh, Al, you’ve got to do better than that,”‘ said Regier, a former Islanders assistant GM. “And he said, ‘Well, you need a lot of luck – a lot of good luck.”‘
The top-seeded Sabres have plenty of talent going into the Eastern Conference final for a second consecutive year. And they’re finally getting a fair share of breaks – particularly on the injury front – as they prepare to face the Ottawa Senators in a best-of-seven series that opens at Buffalo on Thursday.
When forward Paul Gaustad returned for Game 5 of Buffalo’s second-round series against the New York Rangers, it marked the first time this season the Sabres had a full complement of healthy players.
That’s a big switch from last year, when a rash of injuries – Buffalo lost four defencemen and centre Tim Connolly – ended the Sabres’ run in a Game 7 loss to eventual champion Carolina.
“At this time of year, nothing’s easy,” Regier said. “And you need things to go well for you.”
Comparisons between the Islanders of old and today’s Sabres are vastly unfair, but Buffalo has emerged as one of the NHL’s top franchises in the two seasons since competition resumed after a yearlong labour dispute.
Counting playoffs, the Sabres have won an NHL-leading 124 games in two years and are coming off a season in which they won the President’s Trophy and scored a league-leading 308 goals.
What’s missing is the one objective the Sabres have had since the season began: Winning the franchise’s first title.
“We set that goal. It’s something that we’ve taken a lot of pride in,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “We put a lot of expectations on ourselves from Day 1. We felt we were a good enough team that could contend.”
Ruff has the Sabres making their fourth conference final appearance in his nine seasons. The team reached the Stanley Cup final once during that span, in 1999, when bad luck struck again as Brett Hull scored the title-clinching goal with his foot in the crease – which was against the rules at the time.
While the Sabres have enjoyed at least some measure of postseason success, the Senators have known only misfortune, earning the tag of perennial underachievers.
For a team making its 10th consecutive postseason appearance, the Senators have little to show during that stretch. That includes last year when Ottawa, as the East’s top seed, was dispatched by Buffalo in five games of a second-round series.