Sabres' dream season comes to disappointing end

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Unlike last year when the Buffalo Sabres
could blame injuries for their loss in the Eastern Conference
finals, the team with the best regular-season record had no excuses
for falling short again.

The Sabres' season began with promise and Stanley Cup
expectations, and ended with a thud Saturday as Buffalo was
eliminated with a 3-2 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators in Game
5 of the Eastern Conference finals.

"It's disappointing to have an awesome season end like that,"
co-captain Daniel Briere said. "We believed we were going to find
a way. It was just Ottawa's year."

After coming within a game of advancing to the Cup finals last
spring, the Sabres won the Presidents' Trophy for the first time
this season by finishing with the most points in the NHL.

They led the league with 53 wins and 308 goals and carried high
hopes into the postseason with a healthy lineup. Tim Connolly even
returned for the final two regular-season games after missing the
first 80 because of a concussion sustained during last year's

But the result turned out the same, and the Sabres will have to
wait at least another year to celebrate a Cup championship.

"At some point every team learns there's two different
seasons," said co-captain Chris Drury, who missed the second half
of the third period of Game 5 after being struck in the mouth with
the puck. "It's not a tic-tac-toe game and exploding for six goals
like we did in the regular season."

Last year, the Sabres were missing five regulars -- including
Connolly and four starting defensemen -- because of injury in its
Game 7 loss in Carolina. The Hurricanes went on to win the title
over Edmonton.

Following the bitter defeat, the team made a commitment to keep
that group together in the offseason, re-signing many of its core
players. Buffalo's payroll ballooned by $15 million from $29
million to the league salary cap of $44 million.

On Saturday, those best laid plans came crashing down.

After dispatching the New York Islanders in five games in the
first round, the Sabres showed uncharacteristic lapses to have
difficulty eliminating the New York Rangers in six games in the
second round.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said the team never recovered from
squandering a 2-0 lead in Game 2 against the Senators, losing for
the first time this season when up by a pair of goals when Ottawa
defenseman Joe Corvo beat goalie Ryan Miller in double-overtime.

"It doesn't sink in for quite a while," Sabres owner Thomas
Golisano said. "Nobody's going to feel good about it."

The Sabres' future is now uncertain going into the summer, with
co-captains Briere and Drury both eligible for unrestricted free
agency. High-scoring winger Thomas Vanek could also leave if the
restricted free agent receives an offer from another team that
Buffalo can't, or won't, match.

Briere made $5 million this season and is expected to command
much interest in the free agent market. Drury, the team's
inspirational leader, is expected to get a hefty raise over the
$3.15 million he made.