The Buffalo Sabres learned a valuable lesson Saturday night, one that should help them down the road if they march deep into the playoffs. At this time of year, it doesn't matter what team strolls from the opposing dressing room. In the postseason, it comes down to effort and goaltending.
Certainly, the message was clear after they coughed up home-ice advantage against a New York Islanders team they should have dominated during the two games in HSBC Arena. The Sabres are better. It's not going to change until proven otherwise, but they're headed for an early exit if they keep taking early vacations.
You knew the Islanders would be more assertive Saturday night after falling by three goals in the opener. It's expected from a Ted Nolan-coached team. The Sabres didn't think the Isles would simply roll over and hand over the series with that guy behind the bench, did they? It sure looked that way in a 3-2 loss in Game Two.
It's been said many times before, but it bears repeating. The Sabres are the most dangerous team in the NHL when they're skating hard and playing together, but they become very average very quickly when they rationalize they can win on talent alone. Effort over skill will determine their fate. There are no free rides.
"Sometimes in the playoffs, one bad shift can cost you the game," co-captain Daniel Briere said. "We repeated that we have to be ready when the puck drops."
Oh, the Sabres came to play, right around 8:15, about 45 minutes after opening faceoff while staring down a 2-0 hole.
Rick DiPietro restored the Isles' confidence when he came back rusty but ready after a three-week stay on the injured list with a concussion. He was solid under any circumstances, downright fabulous considering the layoff. He won the Yank vs. Yank goaltending duel against Ryan Miller, plain and simple.
DiPietro made several key saves early and allowed the Islanders to get their legs under them. He kept the Islanders intact with the Sabres buzzing in the second period, never flinched when they tied the game in the third. It's what Dominik Hasek once did for the Sabres, back when they were underdogs.
Ultimately, that was the difference.
Miller allowed defenseman Bruno Gervais, he of zero goals during the regular season, to score on a soft wrist shot in the first period. Miller never looked comfortable in net. He was shaky on several saves, which had to be a troubling sign to his teammates and Lindy Ruff. The Sabres can't afford their No. 1 goaltender getting into a funk.
Not now. Not for the rest of the playoffs.
The Isles gained some momentum after earning a split in Buffalo. They should feel good about themselves as the series shifts to Long Island. New York came to play. The Isles spent half the night clogging up the slot, shutting down passing lanes and giving DiPietro the support he needed. They're not about to back down at home.
Buffalo was caught too many times lazily going after loose pucks and waiting for the play to come to them rather than the other way around. Folks, it's not good enough in the playoffs. And now they know.
"There are no easy games," defenseman Toni Lydman said. "It's only going to get harder. This is the last chance to learn that lesson. Hopefully, it doesn't happen again."
A change in venue could be what the Sabres need. They can stop trying to making extra passes and pretty plays for the home fans, who weren't overly impressed with either game. Jaroslav Spacek whined about the building being quiet, but that's what happens when people aren't being entertained. Now, they have a chance to find the style that gave them a conference-high 25 road victories this season.
Let's be honest, the Islanders have no business staying with them in this series. Anyone can break down the categories, examine the matchups from every conceivable angle and draw the same conclusion.
Ruff has more than three times as many playoff victories as Nolan has playoff games coached. Ruff is better at making adjustments on the fly. He junked his lines in the second period, shipping listless Ales Kotalik to the fourth line and giving Stafford time with Drury and Dainius Zubrus.
The difference Saturday night was Nolan's players showed up. The Sabres were absent just long enough for one to slip away. In the playoffs, that's all it takes.