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Best players proved difference in series

Need a reminder of how far the Buffalo Sabres have traveled since the lockout or where they could be headed? A journey into their forgetful past and a glimpse into their promising future can be had by revisiting just two plays from the series-clinching victory over the New York Islanders on Friday night.

Yes, that was Miroslav Satan stumbling and eventually fumbling the puck with Daniel Briere in pursuit in the second period. It was Briere, the little center with the big heart, winning the battle and finding second-year winger Jason Pominville in the left circle. And it was Pominville rifling a wrist shot behind Rick DiPietro for a 2-0 lead.

Yes, it was Satan, with the puck on his stick and overtime at stake in the waning seconds of the third period, a three-goal lead ripe to vanish with Ryan Miller down and an opportunity waiting. It was Satan slicing across the zone, failing to find a way and Miller refusing to cave.

It was a peek into what was wrong with the Islanders and everything right about the Sabres.

Just like that the Islanders were history. The Sabres escaped with a 4-3 victory into the second round. New York was thrilled to make the playoffs. Buffalo has its sights on the Stanley Cup and nothing else. It's yet another difference between the two teams, the difference between Satan and the teammates he left behind.

Satan was a decent guy and a pretty good player, too, especially when the Sabres needed him least. No doubt, the Sabres were happy to see him in the postseason, especially on the opposing team. His unwillingness to compete was the reason they darned near pushed the former 40-goal scorer out the door for nothing.

Satan signed his big contract, a three-year deal worth $12.75 million with the Isles. His departure signaled the moment the Sabres transformed from a group of individuals into a team. Buffalo became a serious threat last season, the NHL's best team this year. Need more evidence his move to Long Island was addition by subtraction?

No.

It was hardly surprising Satan finally showed up in the third period when his team was trailing, 3-0. His score was right up there with all the empty-netters and two-goal performances he had in 6-1 blowouts with the Sabres. His failure in the final 12 seconds became symbolic of the play of him and his partner in crime, Alexei Yashin.

Too little, too late.

The Sabres dismissed the Islanders in five games because Briere and Chris Drury performed while Satan and Yashin mostly disappeared. Briere had a goal and four assists, Drury four goals and an assist, the two co-captains working in symphony. Satan finished with a goal and two assists after waking up in the third period. Captain Yashin? Zip. Again.

"The line between winning and losing is so thin, you need everybody," Sabres defenseman Teppo Numminen said. "If your best guys are playing their games, it's huge. They're so talented that they can break a game and be the difference."

And that's what they did. Briere gave the Sabres a much-needed cushion, as it turned out in the third period. The Isles' terrible twosome was parked on the bench for all but about three minutes in the second period after Pominville scored the critical second goal.

How critical was Pominville's goal? The Sabres and Dallas were the only two teams this season who did not surrender a two-goal lead to lose a game. Buffalo certainly wasn't going to watch a three-goal lead slip away in HSBC Arena and the next round waiting, no matter how hard it tried. The hairy third period, ugly as it was, will long be forgotten before the next round.

Give it up to the Islanders for making it a series. Had the Isles' best players showed up, when it began in Satan's case or at all in Yashin's case, the first five games could have easily been flipped upside down.

New York had plenty of reasons to wave the white flag in this series after having two goals ruled against them, defenseman Sean Hill suspended hours before the biggest game of the season and the Sabres holding a 3-0 lead going into the third period. Rather than scurry for the bus, they kept charging.

Buffalo's victory in the first round will go down as five games in the books, but it should not be taken for granted. If anything, it should prepare the Sabres for future matchups and the long, exhaustive haul required to reach their ultimate goal.

"Nothing will come easy," Pominville said. "It's a reminder. They were coming into the playoffs hot. Every game was tight. We have to fight for every inch, especially in the playoffs with every team gunning for us."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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