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Sabres Reflect On Familiar Ending

Lindy Ruff was a rookie defenseman in 1980 when the Buffalo Sabres reached the conference finals and lost in six games to the New York Islanders.

Ruff figured back then that the Sabres would have plenty of chances to reach the same position. It took 18 seasons with Ruff now a rookie coach for Buffalo to make another run at the Stanley Cup.

Once again, it fell short.

"I hate losing," Ruff said Saturday as the Sabres cleaned out their lockers. "The last game was a loss, and the expectations are going to be even higher. We want to go higher."

The Sabres' season ended Thursday when they were eliminated by the Washington Capitals in six games in the conference finals.

Considering a tumultuous offseason and a poor start to the regular season, it was remarkable they came within two victories of their first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals since 1975.

The Sabres finished first in the Northeast Division under popular coach Ted Nolan last year before getting knocked out of the playoffs by Philadelphia in the second round.

Then the fun started for Team Turmoil.

General manager John Muckler, named executive of the year by the Hockey News, was fired after feuding with Nolan and former president Larry Quinn. The Sabres hired unproven Darcy Regier as their new GM. Regier offered Nolan, named coach of the year, a one-year contract that was immediately rejected.

Regier then turned to Ruff who had no experience as a head coach to regain a winning atmosphere that left when Nolan walked out the door.

"(Ruff) came in here and played baby-sitter for two months," defenseman Jason Woolley said. "We had guys that seemed like they didn't want to play. He could have easily panicked and changed this team all around. He did a great job of handling things."

Ruff's first chore was mending relationships in the dressing room after forward Matthew Barnaby said he would take a cheap shot at star goaltender Dominik Hasek, the NHL's most valuable player. Hasek was actually booed at home early in the season.

Buffalo also traded popular center Pat LaFontaine to the New York Rangers amid questions about whether he had fully recovered from a concussion. Fans turned against Quinn, who was fired shortly after cable-television magnate John Rigas took financial control of the team.

"In November, you probably thought we weren't going to make the playoffs," forward Rob Ray said. "We were thinking this was going to be a season from hell. You have to give a lot of credit to the coaching staff and a lot of guys in the dressing room for pulling it together."

Despite Hasek's seven shutouts in December, the Sabres still were five games under .500 on Jan. 1 beore turning their season around. Buffalo rode Hasek and put together the NHL's best record (22-10-11) after New Year's Day. The Sabres had a 13-game unbeaten streak, and finished sixth in the Eastern Conference.

Barnaby asked to be traded just before the deadline, but a deal was never made. By the end of the season, Hasek again became the favorite to be named top goaltender and MVP. The two wound up heroes in their conference semifinals sweep of Montreal. Barnaby had seven goals in 15 playoff games after having just five in 72 games during the regular season.

"I'm very proud to be a Buffalo Sabre after everything that happened this year," Barnaby said. "It's time to reflect. We're still upset we didn't go further. You never know when you'll have another chance to go (this far) again. Hopefully, it will be next year."

©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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