April 3, 2007
by Brian Wheeler
The Buffalo Sabres will need to redecorate the rafters of HSBC Arena.
Rolling to a 4-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins at Mellon Arena on Tuesday night, the Sabres clinched their fifth division crown in franchise history an
d third regular season conference title.Top billing in the conference has been a lot time in the making. A total of 27 years have passed since Buffalo took first place in the Prince of Wales Conference during 1979-80.
How long has it really been?
That season, the collapse of the World Hockey Association pushed four new teams into the league - the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, New England Whalers, and Quebec Nordiques.
Los Angles' Marcel Dionne tied Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky for the league scoring title with 137 points, but was awarded the Art Ross Memorial Trophy after scoring two more goals. Gretzky was named league MVP, while the Islanders' Ryan Trottier was the Conn Smythe recipient.
The longest tenured head coach in the league and a veteran of 691 career games, Lindy Ruff was named rookie of the year for Buffalo that season.
"It's something on the inside that we're proud of, we've worked hard for and we've battled a lot of adversity through the year for," said Ruff of clinching the East.
Buffalo's only other instance of finishing first in their conference came in 1974-75 when the French Connection led the team to a 49-16-15 record. The Sabres last won the Northeast Division in 1996-97. Not a single player from that roster is still with the organization.
"It's the first division championship since this group has been together," said Daniel Briere, whose team locked up home-ice advantage through the third round of the playoffs. "Hopefully there is more to come, but obviously, it's a nice accomplishment.
"But it's not the ultimate goal. We feel there is a lot more work to be done and we don't want to get too carried away with that."
Two individual milestones were reached during the victory. Stopping 22-of-23 shots, goaltender Ryan Miller tied Don Edwards for most wins in a single season with his 38th of the season, while Thomas Vanek became the first Sabre in eight years to score 40 goals.
Dmitri Kalinin, Derek Roy, and Jason Pominville also scored for Buffalo, while Briere, Jochen Hecht and Drew Stafford added two assists apiece.
"Our team did a job in the first 40 [minutes]," said Ruff. "I don't know if we gave up more than four or five opportunities."
A goal by each club off 18 total shots in a wide-open first period left the game tied 1-1 heading into the second.
Kalinin gave Buffalo the 1-0 lead with his seventh goal of the season and third point in the last four games. Collecting the puck along the halfwall, the defenseman ripped a blind shot that deflected off the right post and into the net at 10:59.
Cutting to the net, Mark Recchi tied the game redirecting Jordan Staal's rebound swith his right skate legally to break a career long 21-game goal drought and make the score 1-1 at 12:01.
Buffalo took its second lead of the game off an odd-man rush.
Following a collision between two Penguins at Buffalo's blueline, Roy chipped Drew Stafford's rebound over a sprawling Marc-Andre Fleury to record his 18th goal of the season at 2:10 of the second. Thomas Vanek feathered the centering pass to Stafford, who redirected the puck toward the right post only to see it kicked away by Fleury.
Roy collected the puck below the right hashmark to tally his fourth point (2+2) in the last three games and gave Buffalo the 2-1 lead.
"We took care of the puck really well tonight," said Ruff. "We took a lot of pride playing in our own end and we blocked some key shots."
The Sabres defense held Pittsburgh without a shot for the opening 8:21 of the second period.
Added Ruff: "We did the little things which allowed us to win against a team that if you had them opportunities, they'll burn you."
Two more goals in the opening six minutes of the third put Buffalo up by three.
Vanek collected Stafford's rebound in front and slipped the puck inside the right post at 4:32 to become the first Sabre since Miroslav Satan in 1998-99 to score 40 goals in a season. Vanek left the game in the third with back spasms, but is not expected to miss any games.
"That's a great accomplishment," said Ruff regarding Vanek passing the plateau. "To get 40 goals in your second year and be over plus-40 at the same time, is a pretty special place."
Pominville redirected Hecht's pass from the blueline inside the right post to record his 33rd of the season to give Buffalo a 4-1 lead at 5:38.
"The way we played tonight is the way we need to play," said Ruff. "They were a very focused group that did a great job tonight."
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Quotes and audio courtesy of WGR 550-AM, the official radio partner of the Buffalo Sabres.