BUFFALO, N.Y. - Coach Lindy Ruff spoke softly on the day after one of the most difficult losses in Buffalo Sabres history. He was ruffled still, maybe, but optimistic nonetheless.
"The game was right there. We have to finish," Ruff said Thursday while the Sabres practised at HSBC Arena. "Our key players are going to have to make a difference, and they haven't yet. We know with our goaltender we can crawl back."
The Sabres suffered a crushing defeat Wednesday night in Boston, losing 3-2 in double overtime to the Bruins on a power-play goal by former Sabres star Miroslav Satan to fall behind 3-1 in the seven-game series. What made the loss so tough was that Boston got the decisive power play in the second extra period when the Sabres were caught with too many men on the ice.
Buffalo enters Game 5 at home on Friday night on the brink of elimination despite having trailed for less than 20 minutes in the first four games. The Sabres were 31-6-4 in the regular season when scoring first and are 1-3 in this series, and they were 30-0-0 when entering the third period with a lead during the season and are 1-2 against Boston after squandering a 2-0 lead in their latest setback.
"It's a little bit frustrating. In two of the four games we've been up by two goals," Sabres captain Craig Rivet said. "We've been a real, real solid team all season long playing with the lead, playing with confidence. We've hit a bit of adversity right now, something we're going to try to battle through.
"We just feel that if we continue to play like we did last game we're going to give ourselves a chance to win the next game. We're dealing with it. We can't turn back time and hope for something different. We have to go out and change it, and it's going to start with the next game."
Injured forward Thomas Vanek, the Sabres' leading scorer, skated for about 45 minutes on Thursday and said his left foot was feeling better. Still, Vanek was favouring the leg when he walked into the locker room after the workout. He said he would skate again on Friday, talk to Ruff, and make a decision about whether to play in Game 5.
"It's frustrating," Vanek said. "Obviously, you'd like to be out there and help. But we're a good enough team, even if I'm not out there. I don't think that makes the difference."
It might. The Sabres have not scored a power-play goal in 14 tries and Vanek has a real knack with the man advantage. He led the NHL with 20 power-play goals in 2008-09.
"If he's 75 per cent and the pace of that game is the way it is, it might be a very bad place to be," said Ruff, who has had to limit the ice time of centre Tim Connolly because he's still not fully recovered from a late-season foot injury. "I would love dearly to put him in. We'll see. That'll be a big discussion."
Rivet was a member of the Montreal Canadiens when they rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat Boston in the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs, and the Bruins were anticipating perhaps their stiffest test in what has been a gruelling first-round series.
"Those are the toughest games to win, the elimination games," Bruins winger Blake Wheeler said. "It's going to be a huge challenge for us, even more so than the last four games have been. It's going to take even a little bit more than the last few games to pull it out."
"We know they're going to come out and play fighting for their lives," added Boston's Milan Lucic. "I mean, we were in their position last year and the year before, so we expect their best. We need to take our game to another notch."
The Bruins scored the second-fewest goals in the NHL this year - and the fewest of any playoff team - and didn't clinch a spot in the playoffs until the final week of the regular season. That they're sitting in the catbird seat after three straight wins is in great part due to the standout play of goalie Tuukka Rask.
Rask has allowed eight goals on 131 shots for a save percentage of .939, third-best in the playoffs and a tad better than Buffalo's Ryan Miller (10 goals allowed on 137 shots for .927).
"Offensively, we're going to have to be a little bit better. Special teams will have to be better," Ruff said. "Hockey has a strange way of operating. Your next game has to be your best game."