Earning The Respect Back
Wednesday, 05.17.2006 / 12:00 AM / News
May 17, 2006
By Brian Wheeler
Respect has to be earned whether it's in the locker room or on the ice. After 52 wins during the regular season, an 8-3 record during the playoffs and a berth to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Sabres are finally getting the recognition they deserve as one of the elite teams in the NHL.
"I don't think that a lot of people foresaw the depth that we had and we've been pretty quiet the last couple of years," said defenseman Jay McKee concerning the origin of the negative opinion concerning the club at the beginning of the season.
With this season's appearance in the postseason, Buffalo ended its three-year drought from playoff action - the longest in franchise history. The Sabres had come close in recent years, finishing six points behind the New York Islanders for the eighth spot in 2003-04, but couldn't quite get over the bubble.
The absence from late April and May hockey seemed to cast a shadow over the team at the beginning of the season.
"The last couple of years when we didn't make the playoffs, I think we could have," said McKee, who led the league with 241 blocked shots. "But things didn't click and we didn't battle through the injuries well enough. I think people just assumed it would be more of the same and they thought they saw a pattern growing."
"We were a pretty good team at the end of 2003-04," said Lindy Ruff, whose team set franchise records in wins and road victories (25) this season. "In the last 35 or 40 games, we had the third best record in the Eastern Conference. We made a couple of changes and a couple trades, and really started to grow the second part of that year."
After bolting out of the gate with wins in six of its first eight games of the 2005-06 regular season, that negativity returned as Buffalo dropped seven of their next nine.
The low point of the season came as Buffalo fell a game under .500 following a 5-0 shellacking in Ottawa on November 12.
But that day would mark the only time all season the team would hold a losing record. The young squad - which finished with 11 scorers over 40 points - compiled a league-best record of 36-7-5 in its next 48 games.
"(Respect) really doesn't matter to us," McKee said. "We know how we feel in (the locker room) and we believe in each other. We're not going out there and doing everything we can to get respect from the hockey world. We're just going out, playing to win, and working as hard as we can."
"I think a lot of teams thrive off being the underdog. When you are an underdog, you have nothing to lose."
Finishing just a point behind the Senators for the top spot in the conference still wasn't enough as the odds were stacked against the Sabres in their first round series. Dispatching the Flyers in six games swayed public opinion. Critics began to believe and some even predicted Buffalo over the Senators in Round Two.
After five games against Ottawa, Buffalo proved those few believers correct.
Now the team enters the Eastern Conference Finals as an even favorite to vie for Lord Stanley's Cup and have lost the ability to call themselves the underdogs.
"I think we've got respect," Ruff said. "If you are one of the last two teams in the East, you're getting some respect. After going through the Philadelphia series, scoring the number of goals we scored, and winning in the fashion that we did, we're getting our respect."
"You've got two teams (in Buffalo and Carolina) that were very close in the regular season that are both now being respected."
Added McKee with a laugh: "We'll be fine if we can just squeak out eight more wins in the postseason and then we'll have everyone's respect."