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Bracing for fight to the finish Sabres players ready to seize the day

It took only a few minutes Saturday to sense the Buffalo Sabres realize it. Whether it was Chris Butler walking with purpose out of the workout area, Mike Grier standing in the dressing room to dispense his sage advice or Tyler Ennis talking about avoiding the pain of last spring, the signs were obvious the Sabres know what they can accomplish today.

They can eliminate the Philadelphia Flyers. They can set a second-round date with the Washington Capitals. They can provide the foot of Washington Street with its biggest party in four years.

They can win their Eastern Conference quarterfinal at home.

"They realize the opportunity," coach Lindy Ruff said in HSBC Arena. "There's a smile on their face in that room. There's a quiet confidence that they know if they can stick to it and battle through situations that we've got a heck of an opportunity. I think that's the main point that everybody's trying to rally around."

The Sabres enter their Easter Sunday matinee with a 3-2 series lead over the Flyers. It's an enviable position. The franchise has won five of six playoff matchups in this situation. The most memorable was in 2001, when they tortured Philly goaltenders Roman Cechmanek and Brian Boucher during an 8-0 victory.

The fans will take another win by any score. The players are eager to give it to them.

"It's exciting," Butler said. "It's a great position that we're in. We've worked hard for it. We've had some outstanding goaltending, and it's put us in a nice spot.

"To maybe give our fans a little something more to cheer for and give them a chance to hang around a little longer and maybe watch a few more games, that would mean a lot to us."

The locals have seen victories in 10 of the last 14 games, with the Sabres running to a 10-2-2 record at home. Despite the comfort level, Ruff acknowledges nerves and pressure will accompany the Sabres into their building. They are inevitable companions, especially for a club that hasn't won a series since 2007.

But following a team meeting Saturday, the players seemed ready to embrace the elements and ignore the nervousness.

"We're to the point now where we know we don't have to entertain anybody," goaltender Ryan Miller said. "This environment alone, everybody should be entertained or doing their own pregame warmup to entertain themselves. Our goal is to win the game."

It won't be easy, but that goes without saying. Aside from an empty-netter altering the score in Game Three, all five games have been decided by a goal. The Sabres grabbed the advantage in the series with an overtime victory Friday. If folks thought that game was intense, Grier says wait till 3 p.m.

"We know this game coming up is going to be the toughest, hardest game a lot of guys have played in," the forward said. "You don't get these opportunities too often, and when you do get a chance, when you've got a team down a little bit and you've got a chance to close out a series, especially on home ice, hopefully we can take advantage of it."

The Flyers flew to town Saturday confident they can win today and force Game Seven in Philadelphia on Tuesday. They won Game Three in Buffalo, so they see little reason they can't win Game Six.

"The most important thing is the belief that you're going to go in there and win a hockey game," coach Peter Laviolette said after a short practice in Philly. "We can take a lot of confidence from the way we've played in the series. The results, you want better results. There's parts of the games that we've liked. We just haven't gotten the results, and that's what we need to change."

While the Flyers won't question their chances, nearly everyone is questioning their goaltending. They've used three netminders -- from Sergei Bobrovsky to Boucher to Michael Leighton -- and Laviolette is going to have to put all his eggs in one of their baskets for the Easter showdown. He wasn't saying which player it would be.

"It doesn't faze their team," Grier said. "I don't think it's something where they're going to panic because they have a different goalie in there."

Likewise, the Sabres aren't panicking because they've lost Jason Pominville. The alternate captain was sliced in the back of the leg by a skate Friday, and he's gone. But the team that lost Derek Roy for more than half the season and Miller for part of it insists it will just keep overcoming adversity.

The Sabres will do it with Matt Ellis up from Portland to play center. The roster move allows slumping center Brad Boyes to return to his natural right wing spot in Pominville's place.

"The team has found a way to rally around each other and say, 'No excuses. We're going to do whatever it takes,' " Ruff said. "We've done a good job with it."

The Sabres' last postseason celebration on home ice was April 20, 2007, when they dumped the New York Islanders in five games in the first round. They were eliminated by the Ottawa Senators at home in the 2007 Eastern Conference finals, and they finished a six-game series in Boston last year.

"We've got a lot of guys who are angry that we lost last year. That's helped motivate us this series," said Ennis, who scored the overtime winner Friday. "We went out way too early, and it was a good learning experience, learning curve for us for this year. We're going to take what we learned last year and apply it to this series."

They know they're in an ideal position to apply it today.

"Guys are feeling pretty good," right wing Drew Stafford said. "Obviously, it's better than being down, 3-2. It gives us a little bit of breathing room, but at the same time our focus is right where we need it to be: making sure we're playing the best game of this series."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com