SUNRISE, Fla. -- The scene deep within BB&T Center late Saturday night was one of those circle-of-life contrasts.
On one side of the Buffalo Sabres' dressing room was rookie goaltender Adam Wilcox, smile as wide as the Everglades after stopping all 14 shots he faced in a relief role that marked his first NHL game. A few feet away at the end of room was veteran defenseman Josh Gorges, accepting handshakes and hugs from teammates new and old and the team's veteran equipment staff while slowly packing away his gear.
The 4-3 loss to the Florida Panthers that closed Buffalo's last-place season at 25-45-12 will almost certainly mark Gorges' final appearance with the Sabres now that his contract will expire. And after 784 games with the Sabres, Montreal and San Jose, it might have been the final game of the 33-year-old's NHL career as well.
"I wasn't quite sure how emotional it would be," said a red-eyed Gorges, who admitted he had talked to his wife about the realization that Saturday could be it. "I wanted to enjoy the moment, coming to the rink, the [soccer] before the game, music, warmup, talking to the guys. All the little things you forget about along the way, so my mind was pretty occupied.
"It wasn't until the start of the third period coming on the ice and it just kind of hit me: What if this was it?"
If it was it, Gorges was part of an interesting final 20 minutes. The Sabres were in a 3-0 hole before outshooting the Panthers, 21-4 in the third period. They got goals by Jason Pominville, Sam Reinhart and Ryan O'Reilly in the last 4 1/2 minutes, the latter tally coming after Florida' Vincent Trocheck had hit an empty net, and nearly got a game that was listless for most of the first 40 minutes into overtime.
Gorges played 15 minutes, 12 seconds, had two hits, blocked three shots and was plus-1 in the game. He played just 34 games on the season, posting two assists and a minus-4 rating. He was on a team that finished last in the NHL for the second time in his four years in Buffalo, and went 4 for 4 in playoff misses during his Sabres career.
"Four years ago when I came here, you set a goal in mind to help change this organization, help get this team back in the playoffs," said Gorges, who arrived in 2014 after refusing a trade from Montreal to Toronto. "To look back at it now four years later and realize we didn't make those steps, it feels like a failed effort. That's not a good feeling for anybody. Those are things that will be tough to swallow for the next little while and then we'll move on for there."
Coach Phil Housley certainly knows what it takes to play defense in the NHL and he paid tribute to Gorges by putting him in the starting lineup with his old defense partner, Rasmus Ristolainen.
"I was surprised. I didn't expect that," Gorges said. "I think it was a nice gesture I appreciate that. Having it be Risto out there with me, a guy who played with me a couple years. An amazing guy, amazing friend. It was cool to be back out there with him one more time."
"We know the situation he's in but I think there's still a lot of fight in Josh," Housley said. "I totally respect a guy that's been through the wars and the teammate he was this year. It wasn't easy for him to sit out stretches of games. He kept plugging away and was a good pro about it. It's one of the reasons why we started him and wanted to play him tonight."
The Sabres are almost certainly moving on from Gorges as they try to get younger and faster on their back end. Does he have a role with another NHL team? Does he even want to come back? Questions with only vague answers right now.
"It's something I've got to really sit and think about," Gorges said, his voice cracking slightly. "There's two different sides to it. It's definitely not getting any easier the older you get. It's a grind trying to get back into shape and keeping up with all these young kids the way they play. Not easy. But being out there tonight and enjoying the moment, it was fun. I loved it. I loved every minute of it. So it's hard to say that it's done if there is an opportunity."