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Sabres try live up to high expectations following conference final appearance

Fans followed by doubling the Sabres' season-ticket base to around 14,500. And national publications have taken notice, touting Buffalo as Stanley Cup contenders.

Now comes the next step, and it's a doozy.

It's on the players to begin delivering on those high expectations and big raises that ballooned the team's payroll from a relatively modest US$29 million last season to approaching the NHL's $44 million salary cap this year.

"Yeah, might as well, huh?" goalie Ryan Miller said Monday, with a wink. "We've got nothing else to do."

Miller is serious, though, when saying he embraces the challenges that come with the Sabres' front-runner label.

"In sports, if you want to be the go-to guy, you have to deal with expectations," Miller said. "We played well last year. We got ourselves into it. Deal with it."

It starts Wednesday, when Buffalo opens in Raleigh, N.C., against the same Carolina Hurricanes and in the same arena where the Sabres' playoff run ended in June with a 4-2 loss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final.

As if the Sabres need another stinging reminder of how close they came last season, the defending champion Hurricanes will use their home opener to raise their Stanley Cup banner in a pre-game ceremony.

That's fine with the Sabres.

"It's just a way to find motivation," co-captain Daniel Briere said. "That could be us if we put in the effort and get together as a team."

What a difference an extended playoff run can make for a team that a year ago was discounted for lacking experience and proven talent.

Instead, Buffalo emerged as one of hockey's biggest surprises by winning a franchise-best 52 games - albeit in the first season the NHL eliminated ties - finishing fifth in the league with 110 points and having a league-high 11 players register 40 or more points.

The Sabres were credited for being among the best in adjusting to the NHL's new offence-friendly rules, which rewarded speed and play-making. And the team made a splash in its first playoff appearance since 2001 by eliminating Philadelphia in six games and Ottawa in five during the first two rounds.

The Sabres, coming off a 5-1 pre-season, aren't likely to be sneaking up on anyone this year, which makes it important to regain last season's team-first identity.

"What we did last year doesn't mean anything right now," coach Lindy Ruff said. "I think it's the way we played that we have to recapture. We've got to recapture that trust and that feeling that every guy on this team's important."

It helps that the Sabres return 18 players after losing only three regulars to free agency: forwards Mike Grier (now with San Jose) and J.P. Dumont (Nashville) and stalwart defenceman Jay McKee (St. Louis).

The team added only one free agent, defenceman Jaroslav Spacek, and will fill its remaining holes with prospects.

The summer, however, wasn't an easy one for the Sabres, who went well above their projected budget to retain much of their roster.

In one year, Buffalo went from having three players making $2 million or more to having 11 above that mark, led by Briere, who was awarded a $5 million deal in arbitration. Things became so costly that the Sabres were forced to walk away from Dumont's $2.9 million contract awarded in arbitration.

General manager Darcy Regier still winces when the team's payroll is mentioned, understanding there's much invested in this group to produce immediately.

"The onus is on all of us, me as a general manger, Lindy and his staff, and the players," Regier said at the start of training camp last month. "The expectations are different. We have a different set of circumstances. ... I think the biggest part is we expect to win."



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