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In a series thisclose, sit back and enjoy the ride

Lindy Ruff placed his index finger and thumb about a half-inch apart Tuesday in attempt to define the distance between the Sabres and Flyers through three games of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Use whatever word you please. Only a hair, a sliver, a smidgen has separated the two teams.

At risk of sounding like a homer, the Sabres remain plenty capable of knocking off the Flyers. They have been more aggressive and more desperate leading into Game Four. They have stood up to playoff pressure for months. A win tonight sends the two teams back to 0-0, with the Flyers having home-ice advantage and nothing more.

Heck, yeah, Buffalo can win the series. You gotta believe.

Not to come off like a Flyers cheerleader, but Philadelphia is the better team. The Flyers are deeper, more explosive and far more dangerous in transition. Their defense is more experienced and has been more dependable, and veteran beast Chris Pronger could help them in both departments if he returns in the series.

Yes, Philly should win. Buffalo is just a pit stop.

Goaltending, when it's all added up, has been a push. Ryan Miller hasn't been spectacular. He owned up to a few mistakes Tuesday. Brian Boucher played well in Game Three but gave up several juicy rebounds. The difference through three games is two goals, including the Flyers' empty netter in Game Three. Really, it's one goal.

A bounce here, a bounce there and

"The difference is this much," Ruff said, using his thumb and finger.

Actually, it's thismuch.

History shows the team winning the first playoff game between Buffalo and Philadelphia has an 8-0 record in the series. The Sabres are 0-5 when losing Game Three at home in a 1-1 series. The Flyers are 18-3 when winning Game Three when the series is tied. Buffalo won the first game but trails going into Game Four. Something must give.

The Sabres lost two in a row for the first time under new owner Terry Pegula. Does that mean, uh oh, they're finally sliding backward going into what could be their final home game? Or does it mean, yahoo, they're bound to bounce back in Game Four, see you back in HSBC Arena for Game Six?

It depends on your viewpoint.

Here's my advice: Kick back and enjoy whatever remains in the season without getting wrapped up in how it shakes out. The Sabres are playing with house money considering how far they traveled to reach this point. Treat the playoffs like a bonus.

Understand that they're not good enough to win the Stanley Cup. They might not have the talent or depth to survive against the Flyers, let alone three more rounds that follow. This isn't their year, OK? It belongs to Vancouver or Washington or San Jose or Boston or another team that has the necessities in place.

By no means -- allow me to repeat -- BY NO MEANS should the Sabres be satisfied with standing up to the Flyers, putting up a good fight in an entertaining series and calling it a season. They should be hungry and confident and loose heading into Game Four knowing they can advance if they can clean up their mistakes and play to their potential.

Thomas Vanek has two goals, neither at even strength. Tim Connolly hasn't scored a playoff goal since 2005-06, a span of 26 postseason games. Jason Pominville has made little impact. Same goes with Brad Boyes. Paul Gaustad has played hard, but he has no goals in 34 career playoff games.

It's not a good sign when Marc-Andre Gragnani, who played six NHL games and none in the playoffs before this season, had the same number of postseason points (four) as Boyes, Connolly, Pominville, Tyler Ennis and Tyler Myers combined.

Or maybe it's a great sign.

Gragnani has been terrific in the playoffs, a pleasant surprise and perhaps their best defenseman. His development is accelerated with every postseason game. Chris Butler has gained valuable experience along with Ennis, Myers, Nathan Gerbe and Mike Weber.

The Sabres have stayed with the Flyers with their kiddie corps and the lowest-paid defense unit in the league, an accomplishment. They are headed for better days no matter what happens. And they can still win this series.

Whenever the season ends, the most anticipated offseason in recent memory begins. Any and every free agent will be in play. Pegula already has changed the culture of the franchise. His mission is to win a Stanley Cup, and he has the passion and money to make it happen.

The Sabres aren't there yet, but they aren't that far away. My advice is to stick to the theme.

And believe.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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