As memorable and picturesque as the first-ever NHL Winter Classic was for Buffalo players and fans, neither the Sabres nor their die-hard followers in Western New York wanted the New Year's Day game to be the highlight of their 2007-08 season.
Making the Playoffs, now that would have been one for the ages, considering the massive losses Buffalo sustained last summer when both Danny Briere
and Chris Drury
, the key offensive forces behind the Sabres' run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2007, signed elsewhere on the first day of free agency.
Briere went to Philadelphia and Drury to the Big Apple. Both the Flyers and New York Rangers
made the playoffs, but Buffalo never quite recovered and eventually had to ship away soon-to-be unrestricted free-agent defenseman Brian Campbell
at the trade deadline to get some guaranteed value in return.
The Sabres, who picked up forward Steve Bernier
and a first-round pick from San Jose for Campbell, wound up falling four points shy of a Playoff berth and finished in 10th place in the East with a 39-31-12 record for 90 points. That was a drop of 23 points from the season before, when they won the Presidents' Trophy.
"You lose quality, veteran players on one hand, but it's something that every team that finishes at or near the top is going to deal with, with this collective bargaining agreement," Sabres GM Darcy Regier
explained at his end-of-season news conference. "In some cases you are going to take short-term hits and you are going to look down the road for a better opportunity. There is a lot of that, and I think those are the biggest considerations."
The Sabres knew it would difficult to come close to matching last season's League-best 53 wins and 113 points without Briere and Drury — and they didn't, but they had their moments.
Buffalo won five straight games from mid-to-late November to get over the .500 plateau by Nov. 26 with an 11-10-1 record. A six-game winning streak from Dec. 12-22 put the Sabres in the playoff hunt with a 19-14-1 record through 34 games. But they didn’t win another game until Jan. 18.
The 10-game stretch included five regulation losses and five by way of the shootout, including the famous one in the Winter Classic against the Pittsburgh Penguins in front of 71,217 fans at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
"There's going to be great memories from this game," Sabres forward Jason Pominville said following the 2-1 shootout loss. "When I look back at this, I'll remember the excitement. It was neat, it was loud and I would definitely do it again."
It was everything the NHL and the Buffalo region had hoped for, but it turns out the Sabres could have used that extra point — and any number of the points they saw slip away in their nine shootout losses.
The Sabres, though, blew a lot of leads late in games, and both Regier and coach Lindy Ruff believe a lot of that had to do with a lack of veteran leadership on the roster.
The Sabres rotated their captaincy on a monthly basis. Thomas Vanek, 22, Derek Roy, 25 and Pominville, 25, were thrust into major offensive and leadership roles when Drury and Briere, co-captains last season, departed. They would have likely been better off had veteran defenseman Teppo Numminen been around; however, he missed all but the last game of the regular season due to his recovery from open heart surgery.
Various injuries limited 34-year-old defenseman Jaroslav Spacek to only 60 games this season. Center Tim Connolly was also hampered by nagging injuries that cost him 34 games. Maxim Afinogenov played in only 56 games for the second-straight season, but produced just 10 goals this season after scoring 23 last season.
"There's going to be great memories from this game. When I look back at this, I'll remember the excitement. It was neat, it was loud and I would definitely do it again." - Sabres forward Jason Pominville on the NHL Winter Classic
"In the final analysis, we could have used more leadership," Regier said. "You lose some leadership in the case of Teppo, in the case of Spacek being hurt. It's certainly an area that we could have used a little more leadership and it’s an area that ultimately we will look at."
That being said, the Sabres did witness the continued development of many of their younger players.
Roy, who had 63 points in 2006-07, finished with a team-high and a career-best 81 this season. Pominville had 80 points and a team-best plus-16 rating, earning him a nomination for the Lady Byng Trophy. Right wing Drew Stafford, who was drafted 13th overall by Buffalo in 2004, showed promise with 38 points in 64 games. Left winger Daniel Paille had 19 goals in his first full season. Bernier also showed some promise in the 17 games he played in Buffalo.
Not that he’s a younger player anymore, but Ryan Miller proved again that he is an upper echelon No. 1 goalie in the NHL. Miller played in a career high 76 games and compiled a 36-27-10 record with a 2.64 goals against average.
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff has already stated that he would like to reduce Miller's workload next season in hopes of keeping him fresh for a Playoff run.
"There are areas that every player in that dressing room can improve in and get better," Ruff said. "We are a very young team and Ryan is a very young goaltender still that has had some good success and has dealt with some adversity now."