Ted Nolan was unhappy with the loss but the New York Islanders' coach was proud of the way his team dealt with its adversity Friday night.
Workhorse defenseman Sean Hill was slapped with a stunning suspension less than four hours before the opening faceoff and Nolan's team entered the third period in a three-goal hole. But only an acrobatic save by Ryan Miller in the final 12 seconds prevented the Isles from pushing Game Five into overtime.
"You never underestimate the power of grit and character and strong-willed people that know how to compete," Nolan said after his team's 4-3 defeat in HSBC Arena. "It doesn't matter how fast you are. But if you're a competitive son of a gun, you'll win your share of games."
The Islanders nearly pulled off one of the most stunning playoff comebacks ever against Buffalo with three goals in the final 16 1/2 minutes.
The 37-year-old Hill was suspended for 20 games for violating terms of the league's performance-enhancing substances program. That forced rookie Drew Fata into the lineup for the first time in the series and he was on the ice for two of Buffalo's goals.
"[Hill] has been one of our most consistent defensemen all season, an unbelievable character guy," goalie Rick DiPietro said. "He's a presence out there. Physically, any time you lose a big-time player out there like that, it's tough."
"Certain things, you've got to live with," Nolan said. "It was just one of those things that happened and we played with the people we had."
The Islanders still have not won a playoff series since 1993, losing six straight, but Nolan's team posted 92 regular-season points. That was their second-highest total since their run of five straight trips to the Stanley Cup finals ended in 1984.
"We were trying to change the culture on Long Island, bringing in a different breed and getting the people excited again," Nolan said. "From the start of the season, we watched maybe 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 people at some of our games. Toward the end it was packed. . . . Hopefully we can win the hearts of our fans back and get that pride back on Long Island that was gone a long time."
The Sabres will play either Tampa Bay or the New York Rangers in the second round.
If Tampa Bay recovers from its 3-2 deficit to upset second-seeded New Jersey, the Sabres will face the No. 7 Lightning. Should New Jersey prevail, the Sabres go back to the Big Apple to face the sixth-seeded Rangers, who swept Atlanta in four games.
The series would start no earlier than Wednesday. It's possible Game One might not be until next weekend if Tampa Bay and New Jersey go seven games. The Sabres have met the Rangers just once in the playoffs, winning a first-round series in three games in 1978. Buffalo has never met Tampa Bay.
Hill failed a drug test during the season but appealed the ruling. That appeal was denied Friday and the suspension kicked in immediately. It will carry over into next season. Hill went back to Long Island and General Manager Garth Snow held a brief news conference before the game, making a statement and taking no questions.
"The New York Islanders do not support the use of performance-enhancing agents in any form," Snow said. "As for tonight, we have a game an hour away, and that's what we're going to be focused on from here on out."
According to the collective bargaining agreement, the suspension comes with a mandatory referral to the NHL/NHLPA Program for Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health. The suspension is without pay, but Hill has already collected his one-year, $600,000 contract this season.
Hill was a fixture on New York's blue line, playing in 81 regular-season games and the first four of the playoffs. He had one goal and 24 assists in the regular season but was scoreless against the Sabres this series.
This was Buffalo's first playoff series victory over the Islanders in four tries after losses in 1976 and 1980 (six games) and 1977 (four games). The 1980 series came in the semifinals on the Islanders' road to their first Cup.
Friday's win was the Sabres' second Game Five clincher on home ice. The other came against Chicago in 1975, the year Buffalo made its first trip to the finals.
Buffalo's Lindy Ruff keeps climbing up the active playoff victory leaders list among coaches. The Sabres' all-time leader earned his 47th win Friday, tops among coaches whose teams are still alive. Columbus' Ken Hitchcock is the leader at 69 but his team did not make the playoffs. Minnesota's Jacques Lemaire (58) and Atlanta's Bob Hartley (49) have both been eliminated.
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