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by Rob Crean / Buffalo Sabres
While the Buffalo Sabres’ 2010-11 season officially came to an end Tuesday night in Philadelphia, a sense of finality began to sink in on Thursday morning.

The ice was removed from HSBC Arena while the players cleaned out their lockers, packed their bags and began to disperse for the off-season.  Although there was a lot for the team to be proud of this season, the Game 7 loss to the Flyers is still fresh in their minds.

The Sabres cleaned out their lockers on Thursday morning (Photo:
“It’s hard to dissect right now; it’s a little bit fresh,” said goaltender Ryan Miller, who produced his sixth consecutive 30-plus-win season.  “There were certain elements you’re happy with.  Obviously not advancing and not winning, we can’t be satisfied and we have to feel like we didn’t reach major goals.  That’s something you can’t rest on and be content with.  We feel like we had more than a chance to win the series, we had multiple chances.  We had it down to the last 10 minutes (of the third period of Game 6) with a lead and that’s the bad part of it.  The good part is we did recover from a tough start, and if you evaluate the whole season I think that’s a positive, but it doesn’t lead us to where we want to be and that’s the part we’re going to have to take ownership of and try to improve and try to get better.”

Thomas Vanek, who led the Sabres in goals (32), assists (41) and points (73) during the regular season and added a team-high five goals in the playoffs, said he will walk away from the season with both positives and negatives to think about. 

“You take a little bit of both.  The way we played the last three, four months, I think there are a lot of positives, and then the way we didn’t get it done in the playoffs, there’s something to learn from,” Vanek said.  “That’s myself included. I was going pretty good for most of the year, and then I didn’t get the job done in the playoffs.  That personally hurts and something I don’t want to happen again.”

Early in the season, the Sabres’ playoff prospects were slim after the team got off to a 3-9-2 start and did not win a home game until Nov. 13.  The turnaround began after Christmas, as the team went 29-11-6 in the last 46 games of the season, clinching a playoff spot in its second-to-last game.

“I’m happy with the way we reacted to some really tough circumstances early in the season.  We got ourselves into it and we almost got ourselves out,” Miller said.  “We made the playoffs, but we know that that’s not the end goal.  We almost advanced but almost isn’t good enough.  At least we can sit here say we did the honorable thing. We looked at each other, everyone in this room, and decided that it wasn’t good enough, and we made a push and we were one of the better teams in the second half of the season.”

4/28 - Ryan Miller Interview

While veterans like Miller and Vanek were key contributors to the success of the team, the 2010-11 campaign also saw the emergence of several young players.

Two of those players are Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe, who each won American Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year Awards prior to becoming mainstays in Buffalo, established themselves this season as dependable NHL forwards with bright futures ahead of them.  While they each had the opportunity to appear in the 2010 postseason against Boston last year, they were featured players on this year’s squad.

“I think all year I was just pushing at the door there and just couldn’t get in, and finally once it opened I got a little confidence and I kept going, and hopefully I can continue into next year.  I know I can play and I know I can make plays here and I want to be a big part of this team,” Gerbe said.  “If you look around the room, this team has made huge strides and a lot of young guys got good chances this year and played well and got good experience in the playoffs and hopefully that can carry though.  We know we have a good team here, we know how dangerous we can be, so I’m pretty excited to get it going next year.”

Ennis, who ranked fourth among all NHL rookies and fifth on the team in scoring with 20 goals and 29 assists, said he learned a lot during his first full season with the Sabres.

“It was a fun rookie year for sure.  I experienced a lot and there were ups and downs, some changes, but like I said before, I learned a lot and am very excited for next year,” he said.  “I was a little inconsistent at some times, went some stretches where I wasn’t feeling it and went some stretches where I was really feeling it.  I think I’ve just got to be confident all season long. You can’t have your highs too high or your lows too low.  So I’ll get stronger as the summer goes on and come back ready for next year.”

Another player who had a breakout year in 2010-11 was Drew Stafford.  The fifth-year forward set career-highs in goals (31) and points (52) while sharing the league-lead with four hat tricks.  Stafford credited his off-season training regiment last summer for his success this season and will work to improve even more in the coming months.

“I think I had a great off-season last year as far as training, as far as making the right steps that needed to be made as far as improving my overall game, so I’ll just stick with that same plan and just try to improve in every aspect,” he said.

In addition to emerging as a 30-goal scorer, Stafford also expanded his game by joining the penalty kill unit late in the regular season and playoffs.

“My role as a penalty killer came up and I enjoy it, I like it. It brings a new aspect to my overall game and I was really focused on trying to play solid defensively in that role,” he said.

While most players are primed to spend the summer working out and improving their games, others have to first make decisions on their playing futures.  One such veteran with those thoughts on his mind Thursday was Mike Grier.

Grier just completed his fourth overall season with the Sabres in his second stint with the team as well as his 14th season in the NHL.  Earlier this year, he played in his 1,000th NHL regular season game before embarking on his 11th Stanley Cup Playoff run.  He sustained a knee injury that kept him out of the final seven regular season games, but battled through it to make sure he could dress for all seven of Buffalo’s postseason contests.  On Thursday, he was asked if he had made a decision on whether to continue his playing career next season. 

“It’s been a tough couple days with the way the season ended, but I’m not quite sure yet.  I’ll talk to Lindy and Darcy and see what they say about things, but at this point it could go either way,” he said.  “Some of it probably will depend on what Lindy and Darcy have to say and at the same time how my knee feels, how my knee responds.  I’ve got to give it a little rest and hope it calms down. It’s not something I want to go through, go through a year of not being healthy and not being able to go out and help the team and be a productive player and do the things I need to do out there.”

Grier added that Buffalo is currently the only place where he would like to continue playing.

“For myself and for my family, that’s probably what it is.  I’ve enjoyed it here, they’ve treated me well, I like playing with the guys, it’s a good group of guys.  I’ve got some good friends and it’s a good team that has a chance to win, so that’s probably it.  If I play again, it will be here.  If not, that will probably be it.”

It’s been an honor and a privilege to play with those guys, and I would go to battle and take a shot in the teeth for every single one of these guys.” - Patrick Kaleta
Grier was one of several veteran players on the team who received credit throughout the season for helping the younger players acclimate themselves to the NHL game.

“You couldn’t ask for better teammates this year… Mike Grier, words can’t even describe how he is in this locker room and what his presence means,” said Gerbe, who also expressed gratitude toward Patrick Lalime and Rob Niedermayer.

The team proved to be a tight-knit group throughout the year, and Patrick Kaleta summed up just how close of a group they were on Thursday:

“It’s been an honor and a privilege to play with those guys, and I would go to battle and take a shot in the teeth for every single one of these guys.”  
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