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Sabres wait for enemy First-round playoff opponent still up in air for Presidents' Trophy winner

It's down to Teddy or Toronto.

The Buffalo Sabres, who were the first team to clinch an NHL playoff spot, have to wait until today -- the final day of the regular season -- to find out who they will meet in the first round. The candidates are the New York Islanders and coach Ted Nolan, who must beat the New Jersey Devils this afternoon to earn the spot, or the archrival Maple Leafs.

Toronto's third-period comeback Saturday night against Montreal capped a gunslinging, 6-5 affair. The victory eliminated the Canadiens and gave possession of the final playoff spot to the Leafs, whose regular season is over. They will hold onto the No. 8 seed if the Devils beat the Islanders; New Jersey is locked into the second spot, so it has little incentive to win.

"We knew it was probably going to come down to the last day or the night before, so there's not a lot of difference," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, who went out to dinner rather than watch the crucial Leafs-Habs tilt. "I wasn't that keen on watching. Originally, I was. Then I thought, it's going to be who it's going to be.

"As it turned out, now it's out of both those teams' hands."

The Islanders appeared to be out two weeks ago when franchise goaltender Rick DiPietro was sidelined with a concussion. But they have won three straight, and a fourth will put them in the playoffs.

"They've made a strong comeback," said Ruff, whose team won the season series with New York, 3-1. "They needed some help tonight, they got the help they needed. They've won the games to put themselves in position to get a little help, and now they control their own destiny."

A Buffalo-Toronto series would put the area's playoff intensity level at its peak. The Sabres won the series against their longtime enemies, 5-3, but Toronto has controlled five of the last six periods.

"The atmosphere is going to be crazy [either way]," Ruff said.

The Sabres on Saturday afternoon clinched the Presidents' Trophy, awarded to the team that finishes with the best regular-season mark, and broke the club record for most wins in a season by defeating the Washington Capitals, 2-0, in the Verizon Center. They also tied the 1974-75 club for most points in a season.

"It's something we've never had before," Buffalo defenseman Dmitri Kalinin said. "It's a good group of guys, and we're proud of what we've done. But, at the same time, we have to concentrate in the playoffs."

With only this afternoon's game against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Wachovia Center (1 p.m., Ch. 2, Radio 550 AM) left to play, the Sabres are 53-27 with seven overtime or shootout losses. They have 113 points, the same number as Detroit, but won the tiebreaker with more victories.

"There's bigger things on our mind, starting Thursday," Sabres co-captain Chris Drury said, referring to the probable day for Game One of the first round. "But it's a long, long year. To come out on top of 30 teams, I think you've got to be happy with the effort and with our focus and dealing with injuries. I don't think it's something you set out to do, but when it's all said and done, it's a nice feeling."

The owner of the Presidents' Trophy holds the home-ice hammer throughout the playoffs.

Drury has won one before, and it paid dividends. After back-to-back seasons getting eliminated on the road in Game Seven of the Western Conference finals, the Colorado Avalanche finished the 2000-01 regular season on top, then enjoyed Game Seven home ice to advance from the conference semifinals and again to hoist the Stanley Cup.

"Each day, each week, you just take it two points at a time," Drury said. "The biggest thing is not giving them away and not taking nights off, learning the value along the way of how valuable every point is."

The Sabres locked down the NHL regular-season crown with a stellar, all-around performance. They scored 1:36 in and never looked back.

Maxim Afinogenov, playing only his second game after missing 21 with a broken wrist, created mayhem with a speedy rush around defenseman Steve Eminger in the right circle. Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig stopped the shot, but Derek Roy zipped in to clean up the rebound for his 20th goal.

Tim Connolly made his comeback much more memorable 9:51 into the game. His pass from the top of the right circle was intended for Daniel Paille at the left post, and it would have been a gimme goal. But the puck glanced off a Washington defender's stick and past Kolzig.

Ryan Miller played an effective game from the start, but he made a few sensational saves late to earn the shutout and help Buffalo win for the fifth time in its past six games.

"I'm not a real big fan of saying you're on a roll," Miller said, "but when you consistently play your game night-to-night, you're going to be successful more often than not.

"You can't flick a switch. There's no such thing as a playoff switch. It's just what we do. We have to play the same exact way."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com and jvogl@buffnews.com

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