Mike Grier was still sitting by himself in the far corner of the quiet visitors' dressing room in Wells Fargo Center about 20 minutes after the season ended, in full equipment with his head buried in his hands. He was in tears while thinking about the game, the year to remember, his future.
You don't come across many people like Grier. He's a veteran leader and consummate professional, the kind of player you want on any team in any sport. It might take a few days, it might take longer, but the agony he suffered after the Sabres' 5-2 loss to the Flyers in Game Seven eventually will subside.
On Tuesday, he was practically inconsolable.
"You know, the guys battled hard all year," said Grier, his voice cracking. "I gotta block that shot on the first goal. I tried to catch it. It went off my glove and went in. It gave them some momentum. It's just disappointing. I don't know how much longer I have to play."
Heck, you wanted to cry with him.
Class act, Mike Grier.
If the situation were reversed, if it were a rookie who was blaming himself for a single play in a long series, he would have been first in line to put his arm around him and explain the bigger picture. In truth, the Sabres ran into a steamroller Tuesday night.
The loss wasn't a Buffalo-style defeat to be added to the city's expansive sports archives. The Sabres didn't choke or fall victim to bad luck or have their hearts ripped out. They were smothered and outclassed by a better, deeper and more experienced Flyers team that finally put together their best game. The result was inevitable.
"Tough one to swallow," Grier said. "I don't know if I've played on a team that I've been more proud of. It would have been easy for the group to go the other way and get selfish. The guys stuck together and dug in. The coaching staff did a good job keeping us together. As a group, I'm proud. They played as hard as they could all year."
Grier will come to understand there was no shame in losing to the Flyers. Buffalo maintained its playoff level for more than four months, which was remarkable, before running out of fuel in its final four periods. It was bound to happen at some point after they finished the season with a 16-4-4 record and stormed into the postseason.
History will show Buffalo lost the series with a defeat in Game Seven. In fact, the Sabres were finished after coughing up two two-goal leads and a one-goal lead in the final 10 minutes of Game Six when they had a chance to send the Flyers packing. The loss in overtime was merely a precursor to what you saw in the seventh game.
Brian Boucher barely broke a sweat in Game Seven, facing just two shots in the first period and kicking back while his teammates built a 3-0 lead. The Sabres weren't coming back the way the Flyers did. Jhonas Enroth hopped off the bench after Miller succumbed to Ville Leino's slapper early in the third period, confirming the result.
Eight players who appeared in these playoffs spent most of last season or this season in Portland. They never backed down against Philly, even after Tim Connolly and Jason Pominville were lost. Derek Roy returned after a four-month quadriceps injury and played well under the circumstances, but he wasn't the same.
Game Seven offered yet another chance for the Sabres to expose their young players to the pressure of the playoffs.
Really, they had nothing to lose.
Remember, Buffalo was fortunate to reach the playoffs. The Sabres marched into the postseason with their big finish, a mountain of competitiveness and confidence. They played seven more games than anyone expected back in December. And they had their chances to win.
"To have this opportunity, it was a reward for the hard work," winger Drew Stafford said. "We stuck with it. At the same time, we almost over-
achieved to a point where we could have won. It's not like we had to crawl back from being down 3-1 or something. We had control. That's the negative side to it. We had our crack."
Added up, it was a good season and a great series. The next step for them is having a productive offseason for the first time since the lockout. The Sabres are expected to be very active in the free-agent and trade markets going into next year. Buffalo needs help down the middle, a fact that was exposed by old friend Danny Briere throughout the seven games.
Say whatever you want about Briere, but he has been the most dominant player in the postseason since the lockout. He was terrific for the Flyers and tormented his former team with a goal and an assist in Game Seven. He finished with six goals and seven points in the series. He scored twice in Game Six to keep Philly's season alive.
He was everywhere Tuesday.
Briere set up Braydon Coburn for the critical first goal. He swiped a faceoff from Paul Gaustad and charged into position outside the crease, picking up the loose change and tapping the puck into the net behind a helpless Miller in the second period. He drew the penalty that led to James van Riemsdyk's power-play goal and a three-goal lead.
Grier made sure he was last in line as the two teams shook hands after the game. Briere was first in line for the Flyers and took his time talking to his former teammates before giving Grier an extended hug. Briere was headed for the second round. You couldn't help but wonder if Grier was headed for the next chapter in his life.
"I have a lot of respect for Danny. He was a good teammate, and he's a good friend. For the most part, I told him that I thought he won the series for them. I thought he was awesome. Any time they needed a big goal, he scored it. I just wanted to wish him good luck and let him know that I thought he was their best player."
Class act, Mike Grier.