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Frantic Finish Sabres hang on, but Isles get on their nerves

Buffalo Sabres fans were ready. The 18,690 inside HSBC Arena and the 3,000-plus partying outside in the building's shadow had been waiting since 2001 to celebrate a playoff series clincher at home. They chanted, they cheered and they shook their pompoms with six years worth of excitement.

The Sabres were just as eager to feed their frenzy. They built a 3-0 lead after 40 minutes Friday night and made it 4-1 with 13:22 to go. A date with the second round seemed imminent.

But an interesting thing happened while the fans were wondering what to chant next. The New York Islanders scored. Then they scored again. They refused to let up, and the festive crowd suddenly shuddered with nervousness.

Then Ryan Miller and his glove sent the fans on their merry way and the Islanders back to New York to start the offseason. The Sabres' goaltender made the save of the series with 12 seconds left, stopping Miroslav Satan with his glove while flat on his back to preserve a wild 4-3 win.

The victory ended the Eastern Conference quarterfinal, 4-1. The dramatic, third-period letdown tempered the Sabres' mood, but they still found plenty of reasons to smile. Their biggest bonus is a few days of rest while they wait to see whether they face the Tampa Bay Lightning or New York Rangers next.

"Bottom line is, we're moving on," Sabres defenseman Teppo Numminen said. "Five games, that's always nice. But it was a good reminder for everybody and for our team how tough we have to play and how hard we have to work to get a win in the playoffs."

Though four of the games were tightly contested, the Sabres did move on relatively easily. Losing just once cut the series two games short of its limit.

"Every series is a grind," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said, "and an extra day here or an extra day there is important."

The Islanders nearly forced an extra day on Long Island for Game Six. They outshot the Sabres, 18-5, in the third period. Chris Campoli made it 4-3 with 6:53 to play, but Miller stopped the next nine shots.

"The one thing we've never questioned is the character of this team," Islanders coach Ted Nolan said. "We didn't play certainly the way we wanted to at the beginning, but we certainly fought back hard."

The comeback was surprising because the home team seemed in control. A three-goal lead against a squad minutes from elimination is usually plenty. Plus, the Sabres had a 22-15 edge in shots through 40 minutes. But the Sabres couldn't counter the Islanders' late attack, which featured the defensemen joining the forwards to create pressure.

"It's tough when you get that lead and you're kind of preaching, 'Let's not make the big mistake,' " Ruff said. "We kind of took our foot off the accelerator, and give them credit. They saw a dog that was back on its heels, and they came out after it."

Three Sabres scored their first goals of the series -- Drew Stafford, Derek Roy and Maxim Afinogenov -- and Afinogenov's tally that seemed little more than insurance turned into the winner.

Stafford's first career playoff goal put the Sabres on the board with 4:56 left in the first period. Jason Pominville made it 2-0 before the water left by the Zamboni could dry early in the second. Co-captain Daniel Briere stole the puck from Satan behind the Isles' net and fed Pominville for a one-timer just 39 seconds into the period.

Roy gave the Sabres their initial three-goal lead midway through the second, cashing in a rebound goaltender Rick DiPietro couldn't find.

Satan interrupted the fans' frenzy 4 1/2 minutes into the third period when he spun in the right circle and unfurled a low backhand that sneaked by Miller.

The chants and standing ovations resumed two minutes later with Afinogenov's goal. Thomas Vanek created the play, streaking into the Islanders' zone to go around Tom Poti while pushing the puck through the defenseman's legs. Vanek dropped a pass to the trailing Afinogenov, who beat DiPietro low.

The Islanders were unfazed. Trent Hunter tipped in a shot from the point with 10:17 to go and Campoli's shot from the slot went over Miller's shoulder.

Miller didn't falter again.

"You take a day and enjoy it. That's about it," Ruff said. "We'll be back to work on Sunday again. We could play as early as Wednesday, so you've got to be ready for that."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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