My original intent was to write a thoughtful, well researched post about the season as a whole. However, I think I burnt myself out on posts and radio shows concerning the end of the season and really don’t have it in me to dwell on the Sabres season any longer. If you are looking for some of that head over to Two in the Box. Chris posted very comprehensive reviews over the span of the last week or two of the season concerning just about all aspects of the organization. The Goose’s Roost also had a pair of podcasts with the writer of Hockey Rhetoric that capped off the season pretty well. And since I already wrote about Darcy, the next step was a post about Lindy Ruff, but Matthew Stewart had a tremendous post about the Ruff era as a whole. For me, those summed up the season pretty well and allowed me to look towards the draft and free agency as far as the Sabres are concerned.
That is until the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs started to shuffle out. The Flyers beat the Penguins, who were being picked by many to be the Eastern representative. Every other Eastern Conference series went to seven games, providing plenty of worthwhile hockey for fans and leaving Washington, New Jersey and the Rangers moving on. Washington upsetting the the defending Stanley Cup Champions was a huge surprise, especially for Buffalo fans who, a month earlier, watched their captain rip the heart out of the Caps in a statement win that would (should have?) propel the Sabres to the playoffs. Ottawa pushed the #1 seed to the brink and both New Jersey and Florida who were an afterthought, at least for me, showed that things change in the playoffs. Teams change.
In the West, the Kings upset the top seeded Canucks while the Blues, Predators, and Coyotes beat perennial powerhouses in San Jose, Detroit, and Chicago. It’s easy to forget how close teams are in professional sports these days. Even though every season a team gets hot at the right time and makes a run and some of them win championships, I still go into the playoffs favoring the higher seeded teams heavily. Watching Boston thrash a couple teams in January, I wondered how anyone could ever beat them. And now they are on the outside looking in, after losing to the team Buffalo was supposed to steamroll to make the playoffs.
Watching the upsets and the hard fought matchups in the playoffs made me realize how much worse it is that the Sabres didn’t make the playoffs. There were plenty of fans convinced that the playoffs were close, until a collapse sealed the Sabres’ fate. I thought it was possible too, especially after last season, but part of me thought that the result would be the same. Buffalo would go against a much better team, play hard and ultimately exit in the first round. Ryan Miller had come back to Earth and it was only a matter of time before Ennis, Foligno and Stafford stopped scoring every time they touched a puck.
So I thought it was perhaps for the best that the Sabres didn’t make the playoffs. For one, it would be much less stressful. The last couple of weeks of the season were essentially a playoff game every night for the team and it would only get worse in a playoff series, especially if it went seven games. Missing the playoffs would also show the organization that a month long coma in the beginning of the season is unacceptable. Also with the Sabres out, I could watch the other games without wanting everyone to lose at the same time. I could just be a hockey fan.
Except that the stress is awesome. Every goal could change something. Every save could mean something. There were no sweeping changes or ultimatums given, either, only “We’re working on it.” In addition to those two things, watching the games is different. It’s definitely entertaining and there are plenty of storylines to follow in each series, but it’s different when your team is at home. Playoff pools and fantasy leagues don’t give you a large enough investment. After reading/listening to several outlets immediately after the season ended, I felt some were overreacting. They may have been, but I don’t know if I reacted enough. Maybe it’s because I spent all my anger during January or maybe it’s because this is the first season I’ve consistently followed wire to wire.
The first round showed why it’s terrible to miss the playoffs. Any one has a chance. Any team can heat up. At the very least, the playoffs give you a team to root against a little extra in the following season if they eliminate your team. But not having a team to stand behind feels worse. Now I get it.