BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - Unlike last year when the Buffalo Sabres could blame injuries for their loss in the Eastern Conference finals, the team with the best regular-season record had no excuses for falling short again.
The Sabres' season began with promise and Stanley Cup expectations, and ended with a thud Saturday as Buffalo was eliminated with a 3-2 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.
"It's disappointing to have an awesome season end like that," co-captain Daniel Briere said. "We believed we were going to find a way. It was just Ottawa's year."
After coming within a game of advancing to the Cup finals last spring, the Sabres won the Presidents' Trophy for the first time this season by finishing with the most points in the NHL.
They led the league with 53 wins and 308 goals and carried high hopes into the post-season with a healthy lineup. Tim Connolly even returned for the final two regular-season games after missing the first 80 because of a concussion sustained during last year's playoffs.
But the result turned out the same, and the Sabres will have to wait at least another year to celebrate a Cup championship.
"At some point every team learns there's two different seasons," said co-captain Chris Drury, who missed the second half of the third period of Game 5 after being struck in the mouth with the puck. "It's not a tic-tac-toe game and exploding for six goals like we did in the regular season."
Last year, the Sabres were missing five regulars - including Connolly and four starting defencemen - because of injury in its Game 7 loss in Carolina. The Hurricanes went on to win the title over Edmonton.
Following the bitter defeat, the team made a commitment to keep that group together in the off-season, re-signing many of its core players. Buffalo's payroll ballooned by US$15 million from $29 million to the league salary cap of $44 million.
On Saturday, those best laid plans came crashing down.
After dispatching the New York Islanders in five games in the first round, the Sabres showed uncharacteristic lapses to have difficulty eliminating the New York Rangers in six games in the second round.
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said the team never recovered from squandering a 2-0 lead in Game 2 against the Senators, losing for the first time this season when up by a pair of goals when Ottawa defenceman Joe Corvo beat goalie Ryan Miller in double-overtime.
"It doesn't sink in for quite a while," Sabres owner Thomas Golisano said. "Nobody's going to feel good about it."
The Sabres' future is now uncertain going into the summer, with co-captains Briere and Drury both eligible for unrestricted free agency. High-scoring winger Thomas Vanek could also leave if the restricted free agent receives an offer from another team that Buffalo can't, or won't, match.
Briere made $5 million this season and is expected to command much interest in the free agent market. Drury, the team's inspirational leader, is expected to get a hefty raise over the $3.15 million he made.