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Lapses leave Buffalo Sabres with room for improvement in playoffs

Not in Buffalo, where the Sabres sounded more relieved than resolute when discussing the mild celebration that followed the team's Eastern Conference quarter-final-clinching playoff victory over the New York Islanders.

"We're happy, don't get me wrong," Daniel Briere said after Buffalo nearly squandered a three-goal, third-period lead to hang on for a 4-3 win in Game 5 to seal the best-of-seven series on Friday night.

Added Briere's co-captain, Chris Drury: "Maybe, if we didn't blow two three-goal leads, maybe it would've been different. But again, we're happy it's behind us."

The Sabres are through to the second round for the second straight year, and still on track to achieve a goal they established at the start of the season - win the Stanley Cup.

Next up is either the New York Rangers, who swept Atlanta, or Tampa Bay, should the Lightning rally to beat New Jersey. The Lightning trail their series 3-2, with Game 6 at Tampa Bay on Sunday.

The good news is the Sabres, who had Saturday off, get a few days to rest and regroup, with the next round not scheduled to start until Wednesday at the soonest.

"You take it, you learn from it and try to grow," coach Lindy Ruff said. "Every series is a grind, and an extra day here or there is important."

But concerns are being raised after the top-seeded Sabres endured uncharacteristic lapses in focus and discipline in dispatching the lightly regarded Islanders, a team that sneaked into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season.

New York earned credit for playing with resilience, yet Buffalo at times looked nothing like the dominating team that rolled through the regular season with a league-leading 53 wins and 308 goals.

"I definitely don't think we're playing our best hockey. I think everybody will agree on that," Briere said. "But at the same time, what we've done is found ways to win."

Sometimes barely.

Friday's victory was the best example of the Sabres' inconsistent play.

After building 3-0 and 4-1 leads, Buffalo allowed the Islanders to rally before sealing the victory when goalie Ryan Miller, rolling over on his back, blindly thrust out his glove to foil Miroslav Satan's scoring bid in the final seconds.

Buffalo opened the series with a 4-1 win, then outscored the Isles 13-10 over the final four games, and benefited from two video reviews - one that allowed a Sabres goal, and another that disallowed one for the Isles.

Briere took exception to the idea that the Sabres were supposed to make some sort of a statement by beating the Islanders in convincing fashion.

"We're not stupid, we hear all the experts pick, 'The Sabres are going to win in four games, maybe five if the Islanders are lucky,"' Briere said. "Believe me, it was much tougher than that. And they made it tough on us."

Besides getting sharp goaltending from Rick DiPietro, the Islanders played patient defence that negated the Sabres' speed. New York also crowded the front of the Buffalo net to distract Miller.

On the bright side, the Sabres' balanced scoring was too much to handle. Buffalo got at least a goal from 11 of 18 skaters, led by Drury's four, while 16 skaters registered at least a point.

It's a group that included Tim Connolly, who had three assists after missing all but the final two regular-season games recovering from a concussion and knee injury.

The Sabres defence was sound when necessary, twice limiting the Islanders to two or fewer shots in a period.

Ruff hoped the tightly contested series will better prepare his team.

"We knew it was going to be hard, and I think we felt a little bit of the pressure of being the favourite," Ruff said. "I think it prepares you for even tougher contests. And we have to be ready."



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