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Briere-Drury playoff thrills are a distant memory

While skimming through some old Stanley Cup playoff summaries on Tuesday, I discovered that it had been exactly eight years to the day since Daniel Briere and Chris Drury played their final game as Sabres.

Wow, it really has been that long. It was May 19, 2007, when Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson wired a shot past Ryan Miller 9:32 into overtime of Game Five of the Eastern finals at HSBC Arena, putting an abrupt end to a magical Sabres season.

Much of that afternoon remains fresh in my mind. I remember Briere, the last Sabre to leave the ice, turning to look up at the emptying arena, as if saying goodbye to a town and an era.

I can see Drury at the interview table, blood seeping from his mouth where he had gotten 11 stitches after blocking a shot with his face. Drury fairly snarled as he said some of his teammates didn’t realize the physical price you had to pay in the playoffs.

Briere was the last guy I talked with in the Sabres locker room. He was lingering, as if he didn’t want it all to end. His voice cracked as he talked about the fans in the plaza, and the overwhelming support the team had received in its run.

“The whole city was behind us,” Briere said.

I walked out of the Sabres dressing room after interviewing Briere and called my future wife, Melinda. She was no big sports fan, but she had adopted the Sabres as her team in ’06. She even bought those commemorative medallions of the team.

It looks like Daniel is gone, I said. He had been one of her favorites, a little guy and a great skater. She began crying on the phone when I told her. I imagine a lot of Sabres fans cried that day, and when Briere and Drury left two months later.

Yeah, eight years. A lot has happened since then, some of it promising, a lot of it negative. They lost a couple of first-round series. Terry Pegula bought the team and declared this a hockey heaven and cried when he saw Gil Perreault.

Now they have a roster filled with young talent, which will likely include Jack Eichel before long. There is soaring hope for a new era, another team to thrill the masses.

The Sabres haven’t truly been relevant in the NHL since that final game in 2007. It has been a very long time since Buffalo fans were able to enjoy the sustained, exhilarating feeling that comes when your team is making a serious Stanley Cup run.

Watching the Lightning square the Eastern finals in New York on Monday, it occurred to me that Madison Square Garden was the site of the Sabres’ last playoff clinching game – on a Sunday afternoon in May of ’07.

I watched that game at Checker’s. You remember these things.

Lately, I’ve felt disengaged from the Cup playoffs. I’m a big basketball fan, so I pay a lot more attention to the NBA. I don’t buy the notion that the hockey playoffs are somehow more exciting than any other sport’s.

The NHL playoffs lose their charm for me when the Sabres aren’t involved. It’s not just the games, but the way the community gets caught up in a playoff run in the spring. There’s an inexorable momentum that pulls in marginal fans. People become emotionally invested in the team over a series of weeks.

They missed the playoffs for a record fourth straight time this year. I’m sure Sabres fans miss the feeling. Buffalo is the most passionate hockey town in the United States. The TV ratings prove it. But fans here must be weary of spending their emotional capital rooting for the team to lose to get high draft choices.

I was no fan of the two-year tanking exercise. It allowed the Sabres to divert attention from the mess they’d created and sell the two worst seasons in history as some sort of strategy.

A sports team can bring people together. I sensed an undercurrent of guilt among a lot of Sabres fans the last two seasons, a shared regret at having to pull for your own team to lose games. I’m sorry, there’s no joy in that.

But I understood why many fans held their noses and suffered through it. They want that feeling again. They’re desperate for a team that’s worthy of the tag “hockey heaven,” one that matters in May and lifts the hopes of the people.

Do you remember what it’s like to wake up with a mixture of excitement and dread on the morning of a big playoff game? You feel more connected and alive as a community.

Games every other day. Playoff beards. The pregame music on the scoreboard. Talk about traffic in front of the net, and desperation, and teams’ genuine disdain for each other. The anthems, Rick Jeanneret, flags on cars, handshake lines.

After all the turmoil and disappointment of the last eight years, Sabres fans need a return to innocence. They need a team that can rise up and surprise them and make Buffalo a vital NHL outpost again, the way the Drury-Briere team did from 2005-07.

Maybe Mike Babcock is the answer. Babcock, the NHL’s free-agent coaching prize, is expected to decide Wednesday whether he’ll remain in Detroit or take an offer from another NHL team, quite possibly the Sabres.

Babcock is the only coach to win a Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal (he has won two) and a world championship. It’s hard to imagine the Sabres making the playoffs for a year or two, but if Babcock picks the Sabres, it’ll be a powerful statement about their future and the young talent in the system.

Eight years ago, Briere and Drury said farewell to an era. Babcock would signal the arrival of a new one. It’s overdue, don’t you think?


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