Well into what was a superb season for the Buffalo Sabres, co-captain Daniel Briere and friends still had trouble getting rid of the chip on their shoulders.
"Everybody picked us to miss the playoffs or be near the bottom because we didn't sign any big names (after the lockout) and we had a low payroll," said Briere, whose team went on to tie for the East victories lead with 52 and reach Game 7 of the conference finals. "But that's because no one gave the guys in here the credit they deserve.
"We always knew what we have."
|Maxim Afinogenov should have another productive season for the Sabres. (Getty Images)|
Buffalo was generally expected to be an also-ran last year but instead started fast and took advantage of a lineup that finished the pre-lockout season on fire and was largely intact. Continuity was, and remains, important in a league where massive player turnover is the new order. But the underlying reason for the Sabres' success last season, and the best asset it has again this year, is superb overall team speed.
It's the quality that proved to be most critical in the NHL's brave new world. Buffalo's skating talents were nearly enough to knock off powerhouse Ottawa for the Northeast title, and then it proved to be the difference in sending the Senators packing after the playoffs' second round.
That loss was another Brooklyn Dodgers moment for Canada's capital gang, which has started the past several seasons with Stanley Cup dreams and ended them with cries of "wait 'til next year." Problem is, there might not be many "next years" left for Ottawa, a team that was largely drafted and developed by the organization, but is now feeling the effects of the league's new salary cap.
Already this summer, the Senators lost several key contributors because of budgetary concerns, and other high-salaried players will be due new contracts in the next year or two. But for the time being, there is enough of an extremely talented core remaining for the explosive Senators to challenge not only the Sabres, but the other elite teams in the league.
No one is saying that about the three Original Six teams that reside in the Northeast, even though the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins were very busy during the offseason. All three hired new coaches and brought in new players of varying pedigrees, but all of them remain nominal playoff contenders.
Then again, no one expected much of the Sabres last year.
"I think definitely the talent has been a little more spread out in the division," said Boston's new GM Peter Chiarelli. "There's a lot of departures from teams, We made some additions. "Just by simple math, it's good to know that right off the hop, we're going to be in the hunt."