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It's Stanley Cup or bust for talented, tested Sabres Buffalo enters the postseason the way it entered the regular season, as the team to beat

We might as well skip the beginning and go straight to the end because that's what this season has been about since last spring. For all their success and all the excitement the Buffalo Sabres generated over the past two seasons, anything less than winning the Stanley Cup will be viewed as a failure.

It says plenty about how far the organization has traveled. In 1975, when the Sabres made their inaugural visit to the finals against Philadelphia, the franchise was still in its infancy. In 1999, getting there against Dallas was an accomplishment. No matter how people felt about Brett Hull's controversial goal, the Sabres were the inferior team.

This season is different. Anyone remotely connected to the organization knows the Stanley Cup is there for the taking. Buffalo enters the postseason the way it entered the regular season, as the team to beat. The Sabres stood up as the NHL's best, led the conference virtually wire to wire, and are expected to win it all.

And that's become their standard.

Larry Quinn made it clear during the 2003-04 season when he said the goal was to win the Cup in the next three years. At the time, Quinn sounded like he was off his rocker, someone who would say anything to put fannies in the seats while trying to convince owner Tom Golisano the Sabres were worth the gamble.

It's been clear since the middle of last season, when people started to realize the Sabres weren't just a surprise team but a legitimate contender. Chris Drury made it abundantly clear when he insisted a picture of the Cup be placed on the wall in their dressing room, so his teammates could see the goal.

Nobody, not a single player nor anybody in management, has backed away from talk about Buffalo winning its first major championship. The organization has grown comfortable with its chase because it is no longer fantasy. At this point, there's nothing else but the Cup.

It starts against the New York Islanders and none other than former Sabres coach Ted Nolan, a fan favorite who returns to HSBC Arena, after a 10-year exile, for his first playoff game since the 1996-97 season. Nolan is always a good story, but he's secondary this time. The Sabres have much bigger goals ahead.

Keep in mind that the Stanley Cup is also the toughest trophy to win in professional sports. The Bills had to win 10 playoff games to reach four Super Bowls. The Sabres will need 12 victories this year to reach the finals. Over the past 20 seasons, only seven Presidents' Trophy winners won the Cup the same year.

It's a gruelling mental and physical test, an exhilarating but terrifying journey. But that's what makes this roller coaster worth riding.

Understand, this is their best crack, too. Every season players change teams. It's especially true nowadays with free agency and the salary cap. Drury and co-captain Daniel Briere, two of the best Sabres players and unquestioned leaders, are expected to become unrestricted free agents after the season. One or both are likely gone after the playoffs.

Yes, this is definitely the year.

The Sabres have an edge over every team in the conference because they're the only one remaining that made the Eastern Conference finals last season. They've navigated the terrain before, left feeling shorted, returned hungrier and more determined. That's been apparent all year, starting with the 10-game winning streak to open the season.

Buffalo can draw off its experience, knowing what it takes to win. Scoring is never easy in the playoffs. Teams last year combined for half a goal less during the postseason than the regular season. The Sabres are better equipped than they were a year ago, when they were unproven going into the postseason. Nobody knew whether they could hold up, but they embraced the pressure, ultimately fell short and grew stronger.

Ryan Miller was a playoff rookie last season before playing 18 postseason contests without crumbling. If the experience didn't make him a better goalie, it made him a more mature player at the most critical position. The Sabres will need his backbone as much as his glove hand in the games ahead.

Drury for years has been a clutch player, someone with a knack for performing when the lights are the brightest. People remember him as the pudgy pitcher winning the Little League World Series, but they forget he won a national Pee Wee hockey title the same year. He cut his teeth in the NHL playing in Colorado with Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. He knew how to win long before he arrived, and now the Sabres do, too.

Jason Pominville was waived before last season, available to every team in the league, before finding his way with the Sabres. He's become one of their better players, and this is his second march into the postseason. Brian Campbell emerged as the Sabres' best all-around defenseman in the postseason last year. He's back again.

Thomas Vanek should be viewed as an addition. He was a healthy scratch for eight games in last year's playoffs because he was clearly in over his head. He scored just two goals. His response to watching most of the postseason from the press box was 43 goals and a league-best plus-47 rating this season.

Maxim Afinogenov and Tim Connolly are back, rusty but definitely rested. The defense corps is intact. Their young players gained experience, making the Sabres a deeper team than they were a year ago. Questions remain about their toughness, but the talent is there. For the first time ever they merely need to play to their potential to win it all.

Ultimately, their best players will need to perform. Anything less means going home empty-handed or, like so many seasons from the past, simply empty.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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