BUFFALO, N.Y. (CP) - The Buffalo Sabres were a looser group Saturday, the piano off their collective backs after a huge Game 5 win over the New York Rangers.
Coming home tied 2-2 in their Eastern Conference semifinal series after the Rangers took two straight at Madison Square Garden, a certainly level of doubt had crept into Buffalo's minds.
"The Rangers gave us a pretty good scare, winning those two games, and being up until the last 10 seconds of the game last night," Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere said Saturday. "It would have been a whole different story had we lost that game last night.
"It's huge for our mindset right now going into Game 6."
The Sabres can polish off the tenacious Rangers with a win Sunday afternoon at MSG (2 p.m. ET). And they'll be hoping the memories of Chris Drury's tying goal with 7.7 seconds left and Maxim Afinogenov's OT winner Friday night will still dance in their opponent's heads.
"It's a tough heartbreaker for New York," said Sabres winger Ales Kotalik. "It's tough for your mind and your head to lose a game like that. Hopefully we can carry that momentum into tomorrow's game, leave everything we have on the ice and try to close it out."
Rangers veteran Brendan Shanahan insisted Saturday there would not be any carry-over from the gut-wrenching defeat.
"Part of being a good professional if you are in sports is selectively having a shot memory for certain things. You have to do that," the star winger told reporters after practice in Tarrytown, N.Y.
"It's important for all of us to come here today with a smile on our face and kind of light on our feet and not carrying a heavy weight or burden throughout the day," he later added. "I think we've done that. We had a pretty good practice, it was chipper. None of our coaching staff or management or players, are walking around here sulking or pointing fingers. Guys had a good time in practice and skated hard. We're really looking forward to the Garden atmosphere tomorrow."
Just when it appeared the Rangers had Buffalo's number, seconds away from a third straight win over the Sabres, the President's Trophy winners showed their clutch ability. Briere says that should surprise no one.
"We've been challenged a few times this year and every time we've responded with some really big games," said Briere. "So once again we were able to do that. It just makes us believe that we can respond to big challenges. We're not afraid, we're not a team that's going to collapse when the game is on the line, when the series is on the line.
"We believe we have a lot of character in our room. And once again that just gets reinforced with the way we got battled back last night."
The encouraging signs for the top-seeded Sabres is that they played their 'A' game Friday night, something that has been fleeting for them throughout the playoffs. A so-so first round against the eighth-seeded New York Islanders was followed by a tremendous effort in Game 1 against the Rangers but then incomplete efforts in Games 2-4. Friday was much like Game 1.
"I thought we played our best game of the playoffs, a whole 60 minutes, we were all over them," said Briere. "We created as many chances probably as any game in the playoffs. I thought we deserved to score more goals than we did but (Henrik) Lundqvist was good and you have to give him credit for keeping them in the game."
It wasn't just the Sabres' mental state that improved overnight, but that of an entire city. A sad sports history has made this community sensitive to post-season collapses and Friday night's dramatic victory was therapeutic to say the least.
"You've got a lot of excited people in this room and in the city, I'm sure the million-plus people in the Buffalo area are going to have a good weekend because of last night," said Sabres forward Adam Mair.
Also feeling much better now is Afinogenov, a healthy scratch in Game 4 who rose to the challenge when inserted back in the lineup for Game 5, not only scoring the winner but threatening throughout.
"For our team it's huge, because we're going to need Max," said Briere. "If Max gets mad and decides that he's not playing anymore, we lose a pretty big asset, we lose a very good player. So I commend him on basically turning his game around and responding well to the benching from the previous game.
"For our team it's like getting a new offensive weapon back. The confidence in everybody goes up with that."
Coach Lindy Ruff gambled that his move would work but he knew it was a risk.
"It's a tough decision. It's one I have a hard time living with usually," said Ruff. "Max wasn't Max for a period of time. But Max last night was back playing the way we needed him to be playing. He was back skating, challenging wide, making plays. He was back to his old self."
The fourth line was also a factor for Buffalo, the return of Paul Gaustad after a three-month injury absence to a unit with Mair and Jason Pominville providing as gritty a trio as the Sabres have had all playoffs.
"I know that Paul wanted to get a few bumps in early, get himself in the game," said Mair. "I was happy with the way we performed last night, we were able to create some battles and hit their defencemen. That's what we need to continue to do, initiate down low but be smart.
"Whenever we have a chance to lay a lick on people that's what we need to do."