“One team. One goal,” the shirt read next to a picture of the Stanley Cup.
That goal is gone, at least for this season and this team.
The Presidents’ Trophy-winning season for the Sabres ended with a 3-2 overtime loss to Ottawa in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday. And this team – the deep, talented and supposedly resilient group that led the NHL with 53 wins and 308 goals – could be in for drastic changes.
The Sabres enter an uncertain off-season, with Drury and Briere eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1 and both expected to attract numerous suitors and hefty offers.
Their departures would change the face of a franchise that, despite losing in the East final for the second straight year, has been the NHL’s model of success since the league’s lockout ended in the summer of 2005.
“You know, great chance we’re not going to be a group anymore. After nine months, that is hard to take,” Drury said following the game, his chin bloodied after being hit by a shot. “We know there’s going to be changes here.”
Drury, however, had been disappointed that the Sabres stuck to their policy of not negotiating contracts during the season.
In early January, Drury told The Associated Press, “I’m open to anything, listening. I certainly love being a Sabre. What’s not to love right now about hockey in Buffalo?”
Briere said Saturday he had not yet given the off-season any thought.
“It’s the last thing I’m worried about right now,” Briere said. “I’m hoping that almost everybody is back and we get another shot and take another step.”
The multimillion-dollar question is how the Sabres can afford to keep both after the team payroll ballooned by US$15 million this season, pushing it hard up against the NHL’s $44 million salary cap.
Even if the cap increases this off-season, the Sabres won’t have much room to manoeuvre without sacrificing other parts of their roster. Briere completed a one-year, $5 million contract he received through arbitration – a decision that forced the team to release forward J.P. Dumont. Drury, meanwhile, is projected to double his $3.15 million paycheque.
“We’ve got some time to discuss and think about that one,” Sabres owner Tom Golisano said. “It’s going to be a while.”
And it might be a while before Buffalo sports fans embrace a group such as this.
For the first time since the Jim Kelly-led Buffalo Bills lost four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s, the Sabres gave this championship-starved and economically challenged city a palpable sense of hope.
“Sabres Mania” began during last year’s surprising run to the East final, when Buffalo lost Game 7 to eventual champion Carolina. It picked up again in October when the Sabres matched an NHL record by winning their first 10 games.
By March, the Sabres logo was everywhere, with one fan even sporting a tattoo of goalie Ryan Miller’s face on her calf.
“Nobody wanted to lose, and there is going to be a grave feeling of letting everybody down, letting our fans down,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “The fans’ support has been absolutely tremendous, and the expectations were sky high. And that room was as quiet as quiet can be.”
After eliminating the New York Islanders in five games in the first round, the Sabres struggled through a six-game series against the New York Rangers. Buffalo then lost the first three games to Ottawa before finally pulling out a 3-2 victory in Game 4.
The Sabres lost all three home games to the Senators, and were twice unable to hold leads. Buffalo squandered a 2-0 lead in a 4-3 double-overtime loss in Game 2, and blew a 1-0 advantage Saturday.
The Sabres power play proved particularly ineffective, going 2-for-29 against the Senators.
“We believed we were going to find a way again,” Briere said. “But it was just Ottawa’s year.”