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Sabres let opportunities in series slip away

by John McGourty
BOSTON -- What went wrong for the Buffalo Sabres, the Northeast Division winners who are going home after the first round of the playoffs?

It was more than just Mark Recchi, the amazing 42-year-old who tied for the Bruins' scoring lead with three goals and two assists, including a goal and an assist early in their 4-3 Game 6 victory Monday at TD Garden that gave Boston the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series by a 4-2 margin.

It wasn't like the Sabres got blown out or were overmatched. They were outscored by one goal in six games, 16-15. The series featured four one-goal games, including the Game 4, 3-2 double-overtime loss in Boston. The Sabres blew a 2-0 lead in that game, as well as Game 2, losing 5-3 after Recchi put it out of reach with an empty-net goal.

"Every game was a tight game the whole series," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "At home, on the road, whatever. It was an extremely tight series for both teams. We fought back and it was a series that there wasn't much breathing space.

"… I really felt that we had a chance to grab this series in Game 2 and we let it slip. We had a chance to grab hold of the series in Game 4. When our backs were up against the wall in Game 5, we were right there. We were in for a tough night because (the Bruins) had been criticized for not showing up to play in our building. It still ended up being a one-goal hockey game."

The Sabres went into the Stanley Cup Playoffs hurting, with three of their top-six forwards suffering injuries.

Tim Connolly hurt his foot and missed the last nine games of the season.

Thomas Vanek suffered a lower-body injury and missed eight games in March and April before returning with a five-goal effort in his last two regular-season games. Vanek was injured again in Game 2 when he was hooked, slashed and driven into the end boards by Boston defenseman Johnny Boychuk, whose check in the next game knocked Matt Ellis out of the series.

Jochen Hecht thought his injured pinkie finger would be ready for the series and was surprised to find out he needed another surgery as the playoffs began.

Drew Stafford suffered a concussion and missed the last game of the regular season and the first two playoff games. He was ineffective and pointless in the three games he played against the Bruins and was benched in Game 6.

To their credit, the Sabres refused to use injuries as an excuse. But there isn't a team in the NHL that won't struggle with their top goal-scorer (Vanek) out for half the series, a leading offensive center (Connolly) rendered ineffective, and a top defensive forward (Ellis), a top two-way forward (Hecht) and a top offensive forward (Stafford) either subpar or not available.
"It's part of the game. They had injuries, too," Vanek said, brushing away the suggestion.

"We had a tough break with Jochen Hecht, as well," said Jason Pominville, who tied for the Sabres' scoring lead with two goals and two assists. "He had a good season. He is a big part of our team. He plays in every situation. Timmy Connolly had to deal with injury and he came back first game of the playoffs.

"When our backs were up against the wall in Game 5, we were right there. We were in for a tough night because (the Bruins) had been criticized for not showing up to play in our building. It still ended up being a one-goal hockey game."
-- Sabres coach Lindy Ruff

"At the end of the day, it was our special teams and those two games we lost. Name me a team that has won a series that blew two leads and didn't score on the power play. You are probably not going to find one."

Pominville is right. The biggest reason for Buffalo's defeat was the failure of its special teams. Buffalo finished second during the regular season in penalty killing and was 10th-best on the power play. The Sabres allowed six power-play goals during the series and went a baffling 0-for-22 on the power play.

That the Bruins built a 2-0 lead in Game 6 on power-play goals by David Krejci and Recchi just added salt to the wounds.

"They were able to capitalize on those power plays (tonight) and they got up and running," goalie Ryan Miller said. "It wasn't surprising with both systems (Buffalo's and Boston's). You have to take your advantages and when you're a man down, no matter how it goes in the regular season, you start from scratch in the postseason. We, as a group, I don't know if we did as well as we could have done."

"They definitely had the edge and it made the difference in the series," Ruff said. "Our penalty kill had been strong all year but we end up giving up (six) goals and it hurt us."

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