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Distraction of sale out of way, Sabres focus on playoff charge

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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Their sale is really just starting to sink in for the Buffalo Sabres, and the more it does the better it apparently feels.

Not that anyone has any complaints about former owner Tom Golisano, who sold the team last week to Terry Pegula. The deal still needs approval from the board of governors, which is likely to come by the end of the month and a formality given that Pegula is the prototype owner desired by the NHL.

In other words, he’s really rich, a hockey fan and has strong ties to the local community.

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Pegula is even a long-time Sabres fan whose wife is from the region. Besides, guys who give alma maters like Penn State University an $88 million gift to fund a state-of-the-art arena and establish an NCAA Division I men’s hockey program and a Division I women’s program are always welcome into the club.

So there is a sense of excitement, albeit subdued perhaps, among the Sabres these days.

"From what we heard he’s a great guy who wants to be involved and a great owner," said forward Jason Pominville. "He wants to win and that’s what we’re all here for. To bring a championship to Buffalo."

Now no one has ever said out loud that Golisano didn’t want to do the same thing. But among disgruntled Buffalo fans and some others, and despite the Sabres generally spending close to the cap during his tenure, there has been a prevailing sense for the last few seasons that maybe the owner didn’t want it all that badly.

"I know people are saying that but I think that’s wrong," Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said. "Instead of being criticized, you know, he basically bailed out a community."

The billionaire businessman and three-time unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate in New York of course did pretty very well for himself in the process too. Golisano bought the Sabres out of bankruptcy for $92 million and $30 million in forgiven debt in 2003 a few months before the lockout. He sold it to Pegula for $189 million, having increased the franchise value that much in less than a decade by making it competitive and catering well to the local market through ticket pricing.

But along the way, Golisano added a different kind of chapter to his legacy by driving some bottom-line decisions that prematurely closed the window on one of the organization’s best chances ever to win a Stanley Cup.

"I don’t know," Pominville said. "If you ask me, what stands out is him coming and making this team what it is now, in really good condition financially. It’s just too bad we came up short when we had our best chance of winning."

Lindy Ruff would rather have players concentrate on playing instead of answering questions about ownership. (US Presswire)  
Lindy Ruff would rather have players concentrate on playing instead of answering questions about ownership. (US Presswire)  
That would have been in the first two seasons after the lockout, when the rule changes seemed designed for the fast and then inexpensive Buffalo lineup. The Sabres went to the Eastern Finals twice in a row, but then lost co-captains Danny Briere and Chris Drury via free agency, and traded away Brian Campbell before he hit the open market.

Buffalo hasn’t come close to being a real contender since.

"Who’s to say what would have happened if we had this player or that one didn’t get injured, you never know in hockey," Miller said. "We’ve been close, for sure two of those years, but some teams don’t ever get that so you can’t really assume something different would have happened.”

Miller said what stands out most about Golisano was the former owner’s willingness to buy a hockey team that had been run into the ground, had low ticket sales and was in what was considered a small market.

"It was a pretty gutsy move for someone who wasn’t a hockey guy," Miller said. "That kind of foresight is amazing but now it’s time to move on with a new owner who brings new ideas and energy. But Tom did a great job using the assets and building this team back up to always be competitive."

More so lately. Behind Miller’s Vezina Trophy-winning goaltending, the Sabres returned from a two-year playoff absence last spring by winning the Northeast Division before losing in the opening round to Boston. This season, Buffalo has been below the playoff line since the outset and was three games under .500 at New Year’s. But the Sabres have been on fire since 2011 began and are now closer to the eighth seed that they have been since October.

It's helped that Miller has overcome an uneven start, the power play unit has come alive and Buffalo’s big threats Tomas Vanek, Drew Stafford and Pominville are scoring enough to lessen the impact of Derek Roy’s long-term injury, all of which is translating into a hard charge at the playoffs.

And then there is also a new sense of certainty, as coach Lindy Ruff put it, now that all the speculation about the sale of the team has been put to rest.

"It was a little distracting," Ruff said. "I don’t think it hurt us on the ice, but there were all the questions and speculation about whether there would be an ownership change and players don’t need to be asked about it every day. You’d rather have them focusing on playing.

"But the fact that the agreement was announced created a better atmosphere. You sensed a certain amount of excitement about turning a new page and going in a different direction."

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