Buffalo couldn't find an answer in the final minutes on the power play and Justin Williams iced the game with 52 seconds left to award Carolina the best-of-seven series with a 4-2 victory at the RBC Center and the Eastern Conference title.
"This was a special group that never used an excuse all season long," said Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff. "Even tonight, they gave it everything they absolutely had."
"We battled hard," said Daniel Briere. "I guess when we wake up the next couple of days, we'll be able to say that we gave it everything that we had and that's all you can worry about. There is obviously a lot of disappointment finishing so close to the Stanley Cup Finals, but I don't think there will be any regrets."
Despite allowing four goals, Buffalo's depleted defense and rookie goaltender played a spectacular game. Four of Buffalo's top six defensemen - Teppo Numminen, Dmitri Kalinin, Henrik Tallinder and Jay McKee - were missing from the Sabres lineup due to injury, leaving Toni Lydman and Brian Campbell to pick up the majority of the slack. The duo played just over 51 minutes on 62 shifts and blocked eight shots to lead all Sabres blueliners. Ryan Miller
made 24 saves and kept Buffalo's hopes alive through much of the game with a multitude of timely saves, including a point-blank snag of Eric Staal's one-timer in the second.
"I'm very proud (of the rookie defensemen)," said Miller. "Doug Janik scored a huge goal, and I thought (Nathan) Paetsch and (Jeff) Jillson worked really hard and made some great plays."
"I thought our defense did a pretty good job for us overall," said Ruff.
Making just his fifth playoff start in his career, Janik put forth a monster effort, recording his first career goal in the second period and leading the Sabres blocking six shots. His 16:47 of ice time was fourth among Buffalo blueliners.
One the biggest blows to Buffalo happened before the game even started when McKee was sidelined with an infected cut on his shin just hours before puck drop. McKee's loss sapped all momentum the Sabres had built from their exciting 2-1 overtime victory in Game Six.
"Emotionally, we might have been able to get over one game earlier in the series (without McKee)," said Briere. "We were a little devastated with his loss. On the ice, I don't think it changed much in our game plan. It got to us emotionally."
Entering the second period trailing 1-0 after Mike Commodore's slapshot from the right point deflected off Taylor Pyatt and Adam Mair into the back of the net at 12:05 of the first, Buffalo took the lead with a pair of goals in the middle frame.
Janik evened the score 1-1 when his slapshot off a face-off win by Jochen Hecht
deep in Carolina's zone beat Cam Ward on the short side at 15:50.
Buffalo took a one-goal lead with 4.3 seconds remaining as Hecht took advantage of a mistake by Carolina's rookie netminder. Curling around the back of the net, Hecht fired a shot to the left post that deflected off Cam Ward's skate for his second goal of the postseason at 19:55. Hecht led all Buffalo scorers with a goal and an assist.
Although posting a record of 9-0 when leading after two periods during the playoffs, the Sabres lead would be short lived as Carolina answered less than two minutes into the third period. Cutting to the net, Doug Weight chipped Ray Whitney's feed from behind the goal line through traffic top shelf to tie the game 2-2 at the 1:34 mark.
"We had some moments in our end and they made a nice play," Ruff said. "It was a good goal and a good pass to tie it up."
The new rules in the NHL created the opportunity for Carolina's game-winning goal. Following Campbell's delay of game penalty for flipping the puck out of play in the defensive zone, Brind'Amour railed a loose puck over Miller's left shoulder at 11:22.
Following the game an emotional Miller vented his disappointment with the impact of the rule.
"My new favorite rule in the NHL cost us the game," said the Sabres distraught goaltender. "Two guys forechecking a player, (Campbell) goes to make a quick play on bad ice in spring time and the puck goes out of play. I don't see how that should ever decide a game. I don't understand the whole rule. The AHL threw it out after a year because the fans hated it."
"It was a game that I said would be decided on special teams," remembered Ruff. "At the end of the day, they got the job done."
On the play, Eric Staal's slapshot from the point was blocked by Lydman and came to rest under Rory Fitzpatrick, who lost sight of the puck in his skates. The miscue allowed the Hurricanes' captain a quality scoring opportunity that he converted.
"It was in our players' feet and I didn't want to take a chance and move away," said Miller. "I thought the way Rory was standing that it wouldn't be a high shot and I would just have to cover everything low. But as he moved his feet, it just opened up a lane for Brind'Amour to just swipe at it. We knew we had to keep it tight and we got loose (in the third period)."
Williams collected his own errant centering pass and flipped a backhander into the wide-open Buffalo net as Miller was down to make the score 4-2 in Carolina's favor at 19:08.
Even after the loss, Buffalo's chemistry and cohesiveness was never more prevalent.
"This is a very tight group that faced a lot this year," said Drury. "I think all that adversity made us grow stronger together and it's going to be hard to split up in the next week or so, and not see these guys for a while."
"I would love to play with these guys longer," said Miller of Buffalo's future. "Rick Jeanneret said it was the best season in 34 years and that's saying something. For him to say that to us, means a lot."
------------------------------------------------- SCORING REPORTS
| Super Stats
| Faceoff Comp
| Play By Play
| Shift Chart
Quotes courtesy of WGR 550-AM, the official radio partner of the Buffalo Sabres.