The last time the Buffalo Sabres won a playoff series at home, equipment manager Rip Simonick got into a fight. Six years later, it's the rest of the team that's expecting a battle.
The Sabres lead the New York Islanders, 3-1, in their best-of-seven series, and they have a chance tonight in Game Five to treat their fans to something not witnessed in HSBC Arena since 2001: a series-clinching win by the home team. The Sabres won two series last year on enemy ground. Add those to the lockout and a three-year playoff drought, and Buffalonians haven't seen their team smile in the postgame handshake line since it dominated Philadelphia on April 21, 2001.
The Sabres pounded the Flyers, 8-0, while Simonick and his fist showed Philly forward Todd Fedoruk it's not wise to tumble into the Sabres' bench. The 18,690 who stroll to the foot of Washington Street tonight can only hope to match the fun of that clincher.
"It definitely is something we're excited about, having the opportunity to do that," Sabres forward Jason Pominville said Thursday. "Our fans have been so good all season, and I think they deserve it."
The Sabres have never lost a series after taking a 3-1 lead. They ended four series in Game Five and the other two in Game Six.
No one in the Sabres' dressing room expects an easy ending to this one. The teams were separated by just one goal entering the final 75 seconds of Games Two through Four, and with a few different bounces or replay decisions the series could be 2-2 or even 3-1 the other way.
"We have the right to feel good about ourselves, we have the right to smile a little bit, but we're going to have to put in a lot of work," Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller said. "It's going to be a tough game. You don't just say, '3-1, series over.' It has to be four games in the win column. That's the only way to do it."
The Sabres have built their advantage with special teams and their trademark 12-forward attack. They won Games One and Three when fourth-liners started the scoring and the power-play unit added the game-winners. They took Game Four in part because their top three lines found the net.
"When you can roll four lines and if your special teams are going good as well, you can count on goals from anywhere," Sabres winger Drew Stafford said. "That's what we want to use to our advantage."
The Islanders, though, have made breathing room non-existent. They've stayed close for long stretches, scoring in the final seconds of a period the past two games to threaten the Sabres' advantage. So while a 3-1 series lead looks commanding on paper, it feels tenuous in the dressing room.
"Nothing ever, from a coaching standpoint, feels commanding," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "You worry about where you're at as a team. You worry about the fact that we're coming back to our building; we lost our last game here.
"We want to end the series, but we know how incredibly hard that can be sometimes because these guys have been around every game. We haven't been able to put them away, we haven't been able to put any gap in any games. Every game has been a challenge."
If New York is to force Game Six on Sunday back on Long Island, it needs to re-create its 3-2 victory in Game Two. It was the only game in which the Islanders won the special teams contest -- scoring one power-play goal while blanking the Sabres on their five power plays -- and they got a game-changing performance from goalie Rick DiPietro.
"It's all well and good to be close," Islanders defenseman Sean Hill said, "but if you lose the series, it doesn't matter if they've been all one-goal games."