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The Hockey News

Losing Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to unrestricted free agency last summer was a big blow to the Buffalo Sabres. Duh. We all know that.

But perhaps there’s another reason for the team’s fall from the top of the Eastern Conference to down near the bottom.

Everybody talks about the Stanley Cup curse – it’s quite common for teams to suffer through an off-year in the season after playing in the final – but what about the lesser-known Conference final curse?

The Sabres have competed in back-to-back Eastern Conference finals, losing out in seven games to Carolina in 2006 and in five contests to Ottawa last year.

Buffalo, in fact, has played 34 playoff games in the past two springs; only Anaheim, the league’s defending Cup champion, has played more (37).

That’s a lot of hockey at the most intense time of the year and surely has contributed to the Sabres’ overall fatigue factor.

Despite a recent 10-game winless skid – in which Buffalo lost an astounding five games in the shootout – and eight consecutive losses on the road, the Sabres are just a three-game winning streak from being right in the thick of the playoff race.

Certainly, if the Sabres do manage to squeak into the post-season, they’d make for an intimidating foe given their experience and 20-14 record over the past two playoffs.

Nieds the ice time?

Anaheim defenseman Scott Niedermayer is a star, an all-star, a superstar, a mega-duper star…whatever kind of complimentary, star-related phrase you can come up with, that’s what Niedermayer is.

But that doesn’t mean he should be going to the NHL All-Star Game this weekend.

The league announced Niedermayer would be heading to Atlanta as an injury replacement, despite the fact he only returned to the NHL in mid-December after taking time off to contemplate retirement.

As always, his impact was immediate and helpful; the Ducks won 10 of 14 games upon his return after struggling to play .500 hockey in the first months of the season.

A few of the top Western D-men who will be watching the All-Star Game rather than participating are: Niedermayer’s Anaheim teammate Mathieu Schneider, Minnesota’s Brent Burns and Detroit’s two-pack of Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall.

Sid’s out, Evgeni’s in

Evgeni Crosby? It sure looks like it in Pittsburgh. Sidney might be down and out with a high ankle sprain – they’re saying early March for a potential return – but Malkin has picked up the offensive slack.

Malkin has been lighting it up for a month, in fact, with 15 goals and 19 points in 19 games; he’s also plus-10 in that stretch and has recorded two hat tricks.

Pittsburgh won’t get too far in the playoffs without Crosby, but it looks like they have the horses to at least make it into the post-season, should their captain be sidelined until mid-March or later.

“My name’s Cliff,” he said. “Drop on over.”

The “Fire Cliff Fletcher” campaign has officially begun in Toronto.

Sam McCaig is The Hockey News' senior copy editor and a regular contributor to His blog appears Tuesdays and his column, From The Point, every second Friday.

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