Lindy Ruff walked into his news conference Tuesday morning with the message stamped right on his forehead. His white baseball cap, found in retail outlets near you, had the Buffalo Sabres' insignia emblazoned across the Stanley Cup, flanked by four words they've embraced all season.
Ruff and his assistants came up with the rallying cry in training camp. It's a simple but accurate slogan reflective of the NHL's longest-tenured coach. The Sabres never have hidden from their mission to win it all. But let's be honest, no matter how many times it's repeated, some catchy maxim isn't going to carry them so much as teams failing to catch Maxim.
Afinogenov was among several players who underachieved against the New York Islanders. He was mediocre at best for much of the series before scoring a pretty goal in the deciding game. At times, he made unnecessary extra passes. At times, he looked tentative. At times, he was absent.
Jochen Hecht didn't have a point in the five games. Jason Pominville was nearly invisible for the first three games. The top defense tandem of Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman was a combined minus-5. Ryan Miller made several critical saves, but he was hardly a savior. The Islanders were the hungrier team for much of the series but simply didn't have enough skill to keep up.
"We got away with one," Lydman said. "Now, it's going to get a lot harder."
No wonder the New York Rangers weren't overly impressed. The Sabres have the talent in place for a deep run, but starting tonight they'll need to play much better against the Rangers to even consider the ultimate goal. The record shows Buffalo winning the first round in five games, but it was a long way from playing like Stanley Cup champions.
Fortunately, the Cup's not on the line tonight. The Sabres were looking for steady improvement in the second round with the idea they will get better with every series and eventually reach their lofty standards. Ruff, the best playoff coach in team history, was the first to acknowledge Tuesday the responsibility starts with him.
"I'll take all of it. It's a good place to put it," Ruff said. "I'm going to make adjustments, and they're going to have to handle adjustments. We've made adjustments in the past. That falls on my shoulders. How they handle it falls on my shoulders. We talked about it. We need to handle some situations better."
Many a team has rolled into the postseason looking like a Cup contender before falling well short in the early rounds. Detroit and Ottawa won division titles last season and went nowhere. Buffalo appeared too tight against the Islanders, like a beast trying to avoid a first-round knockout rather than delivering one.
The Sabres were still giving the Islanders their due respect Tuesday. The Isles negated the Sabres' speed and kept their forwards on the perimeter for much of the series. Looking back, Buffalo gave the Isles too much credit. The Sabres won in five games without coming close to finding their top gear.
Chris Drury was the Sabres' best player in the opening round, but he had his flaws, too. Mike Sillinger humbled him in the faceoff circle. Drury won 58.8 percent of his draws during the regular season, just 46.8 percent in the first round. It's not good enough for a puck-possession team like Buffalo.
Jaroslav Spacek estimated that the Sabres played to 70 percent capacity in the first series. How he arrived at that number, I haven't a clue, but it sounded about right. Buffalo had coverage problems in the defensive zone, took a nap for the first period in Game Two at home, allowed two goals late in periods on Long Island, fell apart and nearly blew a three-goal lead in the third period of the series finale.
"We didn't bring our best game yet," Spacek said.
The Rangers are too deep, too skilled, too good, for the Sabres to surrender 30 percent of their potential. This is certain to be a different series against a better, more mature team that offers a new set of problems. Guaranteed, Rangers crank Sean Avery will be instigating trouble throughout the series.
And that's where Ruff comes into play. You could see him working the game inside the game Tuesday. One day after suggesting he wouldn't match lines against the Rangers, which sounded ludicrous, he mentioned he would take advantage of personnel with the idea he could slow down superstar Jaromir Jagr. He practically thanked Avery for providing Buffalo with an emotional lift.
Ruff didn't win a franchise-record 47 playoff games by accident. He knows how to get his team ready. In the three years he took the Sabres to the conference finals over his first eight seasons, Buffalo had a 12-3 record against its second-round opponents.
The trick is reminding his players of what literally was on his mind Tuesday.
One team, one goal.