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Briere's miss rare for big-game player

Nathan Gerbe's passion for hockey is evident when he's on the ice. But the Sabres' young forward has an abiding love for the sport's history, too.

As a young boy, he spent hours watching "Above and Beyond," the Wayne Gretzky movie biography that came out when Gerbe was 3.

Gerbe watches film of the NHL's former greats. He also studies video of the current players and their moves. He knows their stats, too. Gerbe, who is 5-foot-5, has an affinity for the little guys. A while back, he was perusing the career numbers of one of his favorite players, Danny Briere.

Now here was a guy who made the most of his physical gifts. Over the previous five seasons, Briere had played in more Stanley Cup games and scored more playoff points than any other player in the NHL.

"Yeah, that's impressive," Gerbe said Wednesday. "He's a smart player, a very, very gifted player. He's smart, skilled and feisty, and great to watch. The fact that he's small is obviously an attraction for me."

Briere is indeed a joy to watch, though Sabres fans might get a knot in their stomachs seeing the Flyers' center torment their team. The better Briere plays on hockey's biggest stage, the harsher the reminder that Buffalo let him get away after the 2006-07 season.

There's no need to restate the particulars of Briere's exit. But since leaving, he has continued to demonstrate a rare ability to produce in the playoff pressure cooker -- a quality sorely lacking in many of current team's star forwards.

Briere has played 85 playoff games since the lockout, more than a full regular season. He has 86 points. He's the only NHL player to appear in four conference finals in the last five years. A year ago, he was the leading playoff scorer with 30 points as Philly lost to Chicago in the finals.

Through four games of the Sabres-Flyers series, Briere is the only player with two even-strength goals. None of the Flyers scored Wednesday night as the Sabres rode Ryan Miller to a 1-0 victory that evened the series at two games apiece. Briere had the game-winner in Game Two and the goal that put Philly ahead for good in Game Three.

The question is, why? At a time when even the best scorers can struggle to produce, why does Briere raise his level of play?

"I wish I had an answer for it," Briere said. "I really don't understand, or know why. I remember growing up and watching every single playoff game I could -- sitting in front of my TV and just loving the atmosphere, the intensity, of the game in the playoffs. Now it's my chance, my time to be here. I don't know how many chances I'll get, so you try to take advantage.

"But besides that," he said, "I really don't have an answer. A lot of it is luck. You've got to be on good teams, have good teammates around you. In that sense, I was very fortunate."

Briere is 33. He didn't get this far on luck and circumstance. Sure, it helps being on the right teams. But he's been one of the great clutch players of his time. That's no fluke. More players should study his films. They'll see a little guy who isn't afraid to infiltrate the hostile areas of the ice where big goals are scored.

"It doesn't really matter how small or how big you are," Briere said. "You could be the biggest guy out there, but if you don't want to pay the price, you're not going to score goals. Most goals are scored right in the crease, within a few feet. You have to be willing to get in there."

It's no place for the faint of heart. Briere will do the filthy work necessary to stake out his territory or send a message. Remember him spearing Alex Ovechkin in his final year in Buffalo?

"I've never denied that," he said. "Being one of the smallest guys on the ice, you have to find ways to get in there and make space for yourself. Yeah, I get knocked down quite a bit, but the one time you're able to find a loose puck and put it in the net, it makes up for all the times you get knocked down."

Briere was slow to establish himself in the NHL. He was waived at one point. He was dismissed in some quarters as too frail to survive. He decided he had a choice: He could be a soft, perimeter player, or one who played bigger than his size, like his boyhood heroes Mats Naslund and Pat LaFontaine.

He became a star, a role model for the little guys who came after him. Gerbe watched video and learned. Ennis idolized Briere, too. They took heart from his example, and now they have to play against him when Danny is at his best.

"It makes me feel a little old," Briere said. "I did the same thing growing up. It's a little weird when you hear that and you're still playing. But at the same time, it's kind of flattering. It's an honor."

Briere has been a Sabre-killer since moving on to Philadelphia for the 2007-08 season. Before Game Four, Miller joked that every time Briere scores on him, it becomes a headline. But the Sabres' goalie had his way Wednesday, recording his second 1-0 win of the series and making a stunning save on Briere midway through the third period, snatching the puck right off the blade of Briere's stick in the crease.

Right until the final whistle, Briere and the Flyers pushed desperately for the equalizer. Briere whistled a wrist shot from the left circle with five seconds left, but Miller steered it wide and the series was headed back to Philly tied at two apiece. On this night, the biggest headlines belonged to Miller.

"It's extra fun to beat them," Miller said. "We're happy to square the series. Danny's a competitor, so I'm going to respect that. I'm not going to brag or anything. I was happy to make that save. But I have a lot of work. I'm going to see a lot of Danny and I'm going to see a lot more of the Flyers."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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