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Turning point? Sabres have sixth sense

This edition of the Buffalo Sabres will enter HSBC Arena for the final time today. They'll meet with management, clean out their lockers, shake hands and go their separate ways.

At some point during the annual farewell ritual, they'll think about the last time they played in the building. The game is part of the reason they're saying goodbye.

The Sabres put themselves in ideal position to advance to the second round. They won twice in Philadelphia to a take a 3-2 series lead, with Game Six at home. They led by a pair of goals twice, had the Flyers down entering the final period and were just 20 minutes away from continuing a four-month run of excellence.

They couldn't lock down the victory. Philly rallied for an overtime win, then rolled the Sabres in an anticlimactic Game Seven to end Buffalo's season.

"There's a lot of disappointment right now," goaltender Ryan Miller said. "That's what happens when you don't step on a team's throat when you have a chance. We had our opportunity to end this series and didn't do it."

The Sabres earned respect in Western New York and league-wide for their resilience and ability to respond from early season trouble. There were times, however, they couldn't handle prosperity. The Game Six loss marked the eighth time the Sabres failed to win despite holding a two-goal lead.

"For four months we asked them to go above and beyond, and they have done everything we have asked," coach Lindy Ruff said. "They haven't used an excuse in the book. We lost a lot of good players and we lost our goalie, and we found a way to get to this point. The disappointment was that we didn't find a way of getting by Game Six."

They also never found a way to stop Danny Briere. The former Sabres co-captain had a hard time playing against good friends, but he had little trouble beating them. Miller likely will be picturing Briere's signature windmill fist pump for weeks. The Philly forward scored six times, and he was a constant threat near the net.

"He's a good player," Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers said. "He's really good behind the net and bringing it up front in that area. He capitalized throughout this whole series in that part of the crease. We look back, we wish we could've contained him more."

Briere assisted on the opening goal and scored the second during Game Seven, starting the Flyers toward their 5-2 victory.

"I think that our experience really showed," Briere said. "They are a young team. I think they will be a good team for many years to come. That was probably a good lesson for them.

"It was probably one of the toughest series I've had to go through, knowing you are facing a lot of friends and you are going like that. It's no secret, in the playoffs there are no friends. You are out there and it doesn't matter who has the puck, you are going through them. Honestly, that was one of the toughest things to do."

Briere's friends slowly began disappearing. Jason Pominville suffered a sliced tendon in Game Five, and Tim Connolly was lost on a hit into the boards during Game Six. Jochen Hecht and Derek Roy didn't make their first appearance until the finale, and they were limited.

The absence of Pominville and Connolly was most noticeable on the penalty kill. The Flyers were 3 for 31 on the power play through the opening six games, but they went 2 for 4 in the clincher.

"You have to be healthier going into the playoffs, " Ruff said. "You lose Pominville and Connolly, two power-play guys and two top-skilled players that were very important to our team that you don't easily replace."

The Flyers, though, were able to succeed without leading scorer Jeff Carter and star defenseman Chris Pronger. Philly's depth and talent level proved greater at the end.

Still, the Sabres will pack their gear today with a sense of accomplishment. They were 30th in the 30-team NHL at one point. Then, from Jan. 1 to the end of the regular season, they went 28-11-6. They streaked to a 16-4-4 record under new owner Terry Pegula, who has provided the organization with hope and confidence.

"That's what makes it even harder, you know?" said left wing Tyler Ennis. "We played great in the second half. We came together and dominated a lot of games, won a lot of games, got ourselves into a good position.

"We really thought we could win the Stanley Cup. We really set our goal as the Stanley Cup, so that's what makes it tougher."

jvogl@buffnews.com