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Daniel Briere and Sabres can finally focus on playoff objective

Seven months, a franchise-record and an NHL-leading 53 wins later, it's time for them to prove they're capable of contending for the Stanley Cup.

"It's all we've talked about all year. And it seems like it took so long to get here," Briere, the Sabres co-captain, said after a brief team meeting Monday. "Now it's time to start the real season. I can't wait."

It starts Thursday for the Sabres (53-22-7), who enter the playoffs as the league's top seed, and open at home against the New York Islanders (40-30-12) - an opponent that sneaked into the playoffs with a 3-2 shootout win over New Jersey on Sunday.

The Sabres were mindful to pay full respect to the Islanders, even though Buffalo finished with 13 more wins, scored 60 more goals and won three of four meetings against New York this season.

"By no means do we think it's going to be an easy series," Briere said. "This time of year, you can't take anything for granted."

Coach Lindy Ruff agreed.

"There's always surprises and it's my job to sit around and worry," he said. "And that's started already."

That doesn't mean the Sabres lack confidence or drive, knowing they have a hockey-mad city urging them on.

"Anything short of a Stanley Cup is going to be a letdown," goaltender Ryan Miller said. "That's pretty obvious to us and everyone."

The expectations are high because the Sabres enter the playoffs fully healthy after Tim Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov returned this past week. Connolly played the final two games after missing the entire season with post-concussion symptoms and a knee injury. Afinogenov was back after missing 21 games with a broken wrist.

Add to that, the Sabres return with mostly the same core that helped the team reach the Eastern Conference final last year before losing Game 7 to Carolina, the eventual champion.

And unlike last year, when Buffalo was initially discounted as a no-name bunch of overachievers, the Sabres this year have surprised no one. Buffalo has played off to pre-season projections, when numerous publications pegged the team a bona fide Cup contender.

"Well, obviously, last year helped us a lot. It gave us a taste of what it was all about," forward Jason Pominville said. "It kind of made us hungry and want it more. And hopefully, we can get to that next step."

The Sabres' strength is a balanced offensive attack that, with the addition of Connolly, gives them four solid lines. Buffalo led the league in goals scored (308), seven 20-goal-scorers, and became the fourth team since 1996-97 to have four 30-goal-scorers.

Briere led the team with 95 points (32 goals and 63 assists), while sophomore forward Thomas Vanek scored 43 goals - the most by a Buffalo player since 1992-93, when Alexander Mogilny scored 76 goals and Pat LaFontaine added 53.

They have depth with six veteran defencemen and a proven goalie in Miller, whose 40 wins set a franchise record and put him in a tie for third in the league.

The list of achievements mean only so much to Briere.

"I think we're better prepared than we were last year," Briere said. "But it won't matter when the puck drops. It's what you do when the puck drops and the game starts that's going to matter the most."



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