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Playoffs putting Easter on ice 3 p.m. game forcing difficult choices

Easter versus hockey.

Usually, the dynamics of spirituality versus the raw physicality of the mortal sphere aren't spelled out quite so elementally. At least not for Western New Yorkers.

But lo, today the calendar and the hockey fates have conspired to create a scenario in which the Sabres will play the Philadelphia Flyers in a Game 6 elimination matchup -- in the middle of the afternoon on Easter Sunday.

So it comes down to this, folks:

What is your family doing this Easter holiday?

Will you be rushing from church to don your Ryan Miller and Derek Roy jerseys, to get over to HSBC Arena before the puck drops?

Will it be the 3 p.m. nationally televised game for your crew -- or the traditional afternoon Easter family dinner?

Maybe you will draw the line and block out the day as religious and family time, and leave all Sabres fandom for -- well, Dyngus Day.

"I did wish it wasn't on Easter Sunday, or at least it was in the evening," said Susan Johnson, a West Seneca resident and grandmother of eight who said the game will interfere with her usual Easter activities, including a 1:30 p.m. dinner followed by an egg hunt. Some of her relatives will be at the game instead, she said.

"Three o' clock is right in the middle of everything," Johnson said.

Unless you're Bishop Edward U. Kmiec.

The leader of Buffalo's Catholic Diocese will offer a 10:30 a.m. Mass in St. Joseph Cathedral to celebrate the Resurrection of the Savior, a spokesman said, and then will be heading home to watch some hockey.

"The bishop encourages people to go to Mass -- and then to go cheer on the Sabres," said Kevin A. Keenan, director of communication for the diocese.

The team recognizes the game may affect families' Easter planning, Sabres President Ted Black said. He pointed out that the National Hockey League sets the playoff schedules based upon venue availability.

The Sabres-Flyers series started in Philadelphia on Thursday, April 14, likely because the Philadelphia 76ers had a home game on Wednesday, the first night of the NHL Playoffs. The league likes to adhere to an every other day schedule when possible, according to Black. That meant Game 5 hit on Good Friday and Game 6, Easter Sunday.

"Sports are played on Easter Sunday," said Black, who pointed out that, in recent years, he declined an offer to attend the final day of the Masters on Easter Sunday. "It's a family day for me as well."

Both Black and Sabres owner Terry Pegula expect to be together with their families at Sunday's game, which also has been selected by NBC to be its nationally televised game.

Black took a glass-half-full approach on the Easter issue, saying many Buffalo ex-pats who are returning home for the holiday will now get to see Sabres playoff hockey.

"I'm sure a lot of people may be really excited about it," Black said.

Rest assured, no matter what side of the debate you fall on this Easter Sunday, there are plenty of people who agree with you.

Bob Zwelling, 69, a Hamburg resident, will attend Mass at SS. Peter and Paul Church in the village, and then prepare a holiday dinner at home for perhaps a dozen people.

He'll be leaving the TV on throughout, to catch the game.

"I'm going to watch it," Zwelling said. "I normally have dinner for the family, but this year we will have the TV on. I think the Sabres have a good chance -- I think they may win it all."

For some, the decision on whether to watch the game or not is really a no-brainer. Jessica Waterhouse, 20, an East Aurora resident, will drive down to Fredonia to eat an Easter meal with 20 other relatives at her grandmother's house. She knows the TV will be on and tuned to the Sabres game.

"She'll have it on," said Waterhouse confidently, as she clutched a pair of Sabres-themed leg warmers inside a local sporting goods store last week. "I come from a family of hockey fans. I think it's good: You can have an Easter dinner and watch the Sabres game. It's all good."

Others are a bit more torn. One is Chris Parker, 45, who is known on local radio as "Bulldog," and who makes up half of a sports talk show. Parker joked on air last week that he might "have to lie to his mom" to get out of Easter dinner.

Parker said later that he didn't end up lying -- but that his dad answered the phone the day he called to break the news there'd be an empty seat at the holiday table. His dad was deputized with "taking the bullet" for the team.

"The problem for me is Easter is one of my favorite holidays," Parker told The News. "I'm Polish. It's pierogi and kielbasa and hard boiled eggs for breakfast and then the same meal for dinner at my mom's. If it were at noon or 1 p.m., that would be perfect. Three o'clock sort of shoots a cannonball through the whole thing."

Local restaurateurs and business owners were taking a wait-and-see approach to this weekend, when it came to gauging how the Sabres playoff game would affect their usual holiday business.

At Samuel's Grande Manor in Clarence, banquet managers said that reservations for the weekend still looked strong -- despite the Sabres game announcement.

And no, they said, there will not be TV sets in their dining areas during the game.

"We are totally booked. We've had very few cancellations," said Sue Manfredo, banquet coordinator for the restaurant.

Why is that? Manfredo has a theory.

"Usually the one making the decisions on where people go on Easter is the wife or the girlfriend. And those things don't get changed," she said, with a laugh.

Some, however, said the decision is one they've struggled with.

"The dilemma for me is, I don't want to be showing my kids the sort of message that this game is more important than celebrating the holiday with my family," said Parker, the talk radio host. "Make no mistake, it is completely selfish. I'd like to be better than that."

The key to the problem could be an extra holiday measure of flexibility -- and tolerance.

That's the view of Donna Dosher, owner of Borders Without Limits framing store in the McKinley Mall, who is looking forward to Sunday with eagerness as one of the few days she gets off each year.

"I think most people will be flexible enough to work around it," said Dosher, who calls herself a hockey fan, especially during playoff time. "If people are having a brunch, they'll have it earlier. If they are having a dinner, they'll have it later.

"In Buffalo," she concluded, "the Sabres are important. I want this [Sabres victory] for the city -- the city deserves it."

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> Want to party in the plaza?

What to know about today's gathering outside HSBC Arena

WHEN: Party starts at 1 p.m., ahead of 3 p.m. game.

WHERE:In the plaza area outside HSBC Arena, near Perry and Illinois streets.

ENTERTAINMENT:Live music until 30 minutes before faceoff, and special guest appearances from Sabres personalities.

WHAT YOU'LL WATCH: Two 9-by-12-foot screens will show game action.

COST: No charge, and no tickets are required. Food, beverages and merchandise available for purchase before and during the game.

DON'T BRING:Coolers or lawn chairs, which are prohibited in the plaza.

STAYING HOME?:If you aren't heading downtown, remember that today's game is being covered by NBC and will air on Channel 2.