Buffalo fans seem to be split into two camps right now. The first camp feels like the loss in the Eastern Conference Finals ruins the entire season. What's the point in playing so well all season if you're just going to choke when it counts? The second camp feels like, regardless of what happened in the playoffs, it was a great season, one that fans in Buffalo will remember for a very long time. I've bounced back and forth a little bit, but I've landed somewhere in the middle.
I'm definitely disappointed. I'm not disappointed so much in the fact that the Sabres lost - only one team out of 30 can win the Stanley Cup, the NHL playoffs are definitely the most grueling playoffs in pro sports, and we lost to a very talented, very motivated Ottawa team. I am disappointed that after having such a good season - a season full of heart and drive - the team looked so out of sync. I won't go as far as saying they didn't want to win because I doubt that's the case. The players certainly looked and sounded sad and disappointed about the way the season ended. But most nights, through all three rounds they played, they certainly didn't look like they wanted to win and they didn't appear to be concerned or angry about their play. By the time they snapped out of it, they were in a 3-0 hole to a very good team and there was no room for error. Maybe a Sabres team firing on all cylinders still loses the series to the Senators. I'm certainly not going to take anything away from the Sens. They're loaded with talented, they played like they wanted to win, they had each others backs on the ice. They were nothing short of fantastic. But even as crappy as we played (seriously, has there ever been a game more painful than game 3 of that series?) 3 of the 4 losses were one goal games and the first game wasn't as uneven as the final score suggests. If our powerplay is average (as opposed to unbearably craptacular), it's potentially a different series. Last year, when the Sabres lost to the Hurricanes, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that they left absolutely everything they had in them on the ice. This season, while the last couple of games were very good, most fans were left wondering where their team had disappeared to.
But it was a great season and not just on the ice. As Kevin has already said very well over on Bfloblog.com, no real Sabres fan can honestly say he came away from this season empty-handed. It's been said over and over, and I really don't know how to say it in a way that will make people outside of Buffalo understand or appreciate it, but the Sabres have become such a huge community thing over the past couple of seasons that it's mind-boggling. You could walk through any part of town and feel a buzz in the air on game days. Everyone walked a little lighter after a victory, everyone was a touch subdued after a loss. During the playoffs, thousands of people stood outside the arena and watched the game on a big screen TV because they wanted to be a part of things, they wanted to feel the incredible energy and community. For crying out loud, 10,000 people sat in HSBC Arena to watch a game that was going on in Ottawa! Ten thousand! The Sabres were the hot topic of conversation. I'm amazed at all the people I had hockey talk with over the course of the season - fellow passengers on the bus, the anti-social bus driver (the only time we ever spoke to each other), cashiers in stores, customers at the second job, and most amazingly to me, my students.
I've worked with 6th graders for 5 years now, and I've never, ever talked hockey with any of them. It just wasn't on their radar. We'd talk about football and basketball some (as much as I could since I'm a casual fan of football at best and not the slightest bit interested in basketball). We'd occasioanlly even get baseball in there though most of them were barely interested. Never talked about hockey though, not until this year. The interest was helped along by the previously mentioned Dylan, an awesome little hockey player himself and a real fan of the game. The two of us would sit down at breakfast every morning and talk about the previous night's game, upcoming opponents and amazing (or amazingly terrible) plays and eventually the other kids started to get sucked in. (If you're wondering why I eat with the kids every morning and why it sounds like there are so few of them it's because I work at a program for emotionally disturbed kids - highly supervised, very good staff to student ratio.) Most of them didn't turn into experts but they all knew whether the Sabres had won or lost, they'd all seen highlights on the news (some of them don't have cable so watching the games were out), and they all had favorite players - Danny Briere is very big with the sixth grade crowd - enter joke here about how it's because he looks like he could fit right in with them. The Sabres were a great talking point and a real bonding ritual with a bunch of kids that have been through hell in their short lives and are often reluctant to give any adult around them any part of themselves and boy, this is starting to sound extremely cheesy, but I'll always be grateful for that. And you know what's even better? The Monday morning after the team was eliminated the kids still wanted to talk about the Sabres at breakfast. What was it like to be at the game? Is Danny going to stay? Were there a lot of people outside? Is Danny going to stay? Did you cry when they lost? Ryan Miller is the best goalie in the world and I can't believe that loser Emery gets to play in the Finals! (They might've had some... uh, adult influence on that one...) Do you think we're still going to be really good next season? And hey, Heather, IS DANNY GOING TO STAY?!
So while I'm sure there are plenty of bandwagon fans who have spent the past week ripping the flags off their cars, tossing out their player posters, and listing their commemorative medallions on ebay, I know this current Sabres team has grown a lot of new fans who will stick with the team and the sport and that can only be a good thing, you know?
I told my kids during the first round that if the Sabres won the Stanley Cup, I was going to get a tattoo in celebration. A few days after the team's elimination, one of them asked me if I was still going to go through with the tattoo. "I don't know," I said, "the deal was they had to win it all which they didn't do." He thought about that for a long second and finally said, "I think you should get it anyway." "Yeah?" "Yeah. I mean, it's not like you don't still love the team, right?"
Right. Out of the mouth of babes and all.