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Game 80: Not sayin' good night, just sayin'
The Buffalo Sabres playoff dream is over for this season, but this is just the beginning of a golden era.
Whichever way you want to feel about the Buffalo Sabres being eliminated from playoff contention Tuesday night in New Jersey is justified. Be it sadness, frustration, or even joy it all makes sense. Hell, you might feel all three of those things at the same time. You’re allowed that because this team was capable of producing all of those reactions throughout a game, never mind the entire season.
Breaking it down and sorting through it, though, that’s what the immediacy of the postgame is for. The entire offseason will be there to pick over what went right, wrong, and otherwise but for now, feel your feelings, and let’s sort through them.
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Feeling sadness about the team being so close to a return to the postseason is natural. It’s the first time since 2012 when they finished three points behind Ottawa and Washington for a spot in the postseason that they’ve been this close. Hell, they might finish three points out again this season when it’s all wrapped up. Some twists of fate are rude like that.
They were so close you could taste it and feeling dejected about missing out is sensible. They were exciting to watch and sometimes equally maddening as well, but for a lot of fans it struck a chord of remembrance to a time seemingly long ago that the playoffs happened semi-regularly in Buffalo and the kind of excitement that brings.
If you found yourself welling up hearing captain Kyle Okposo talk about what this team has done and what could have been, you’re probably not alone. Hearing the anguish in his voice talking about this super young group of star or soon-to-be star players and how badly he wanted this group to get to the postseason enhances what leading this team means to him. Seeing how this loss and the end of the dream hurts emphasizes how badly he wanted to be the leader of the team that got the City of Buffalo going wild about the Sabres being back in the playoffs again.
One phrase stuck out though:
“We became an actual hockey team this year… It’s extremely gratifying in a way, but at the same time extremely disappointing with how it ended. (The season)’s not over yet, but to miss the playoffs after that happens, it’s definitely a letdown.”
Okposo has been here since 2016. He chose to sign with the Sabres as a free agent. He’s made Buffalo his home. He’s the heart and soul in blue and gold and coming this close and miss out in the final year of his contract, you can’t help but feel for him. He loves Buffalo.
It can be easy to confuse anger with frustration. They often emote the same way and no matter what, there is a level of anger buried within frustration. It’s an entirely suitable expression of angst seeing the Sabres miss the playoffs for the 12th straight season.
Being “in the hunt” got old with the Bills and even though it was a new thing for these Sabres, a fan’s memory goes back a long way. After all, it’s 12 years in a league where half the teams make the playoffs and it’s 12 years of finishing below that particular Mendoza line.
Being frustrated with a young team making mistakes is difficult. Frustration with coaching or lineup decisions is part of the business, as is frustration with management. Youthful mistakes dissipated as the season went on and can be (mostly) excused because of inexperience. It doesn’t make it feel any better in the moment when there’s a turnover or blown coverage, but it’s somewhat understandable.
If there were qualms with how Don Granato did things behind the bench, often times they were in-the-moment nitpicks. Other times it was about how one of the league’s best power play units would go quiet for stretches of games or about how the penalty kill was a sore point for most of the season. The goalie juggling that went on throughout the season more than enough reason for exasperation, but maybe that’s more of an issue for Kevyn Adams.
Going back and relitigating every move made and not made will make anyone go mad, but that’s more of a problem with hindsight having perfect vision. The should’ves, could’ves, and would’ves will pile up high enough to block out the sun and there’s no joy in doing that.
“But this could’ve been the year, damn it! It’s been long enough!”
You’re not wrong and while the future has no guarantees, this won’t be their only shot at the postseason for years to come. It can get easier even that means it gets more difficult in the end game.
The optimistic point of view on this season breeds hope and hope springs eternal they say. Optimism allows for joy to seep in and for Sabres fans, happiness is something that doesn’t stick around too long and hope has stabbed them in the back before. But going back through the performances this season makes the idea of promise seem actually possible.
Tage Thompson surpassing his 38-goal season from a year ago and becoming a bona fide star in the NHL is incredible. Watching Rasmus Dahlin fulfill the promise he carried with him into the league as the No. 1 pick in 2018 takes your breath away at times, particularly when he’s doing things like he did against Carolina.
It’s seeing Dylan Cozens become a 30-goal scorer for the first time and Jeff Skinner scoring 30-plus again. Watching Alex Tuch play with the kind of pride a guy who grew up being a fan of the team he’s playing for can’t help but make you feel good about the direction they’re headed. Young guys like Jack Quinn and J-J Peterka getting finding their footing and showing flashes of what could make them star players.
It’s about Owen Power being 20 years old and playing with the kind of savvy a 10-year veteran would and with the instincts and skill like very few others do. The evolution of Casey Mittelstadt’s game throughout the season can make you believe a player can find their stride at any time. Seeing Devon Levi walk out of college and directly into the starting lineup to become the go-to guy in a late push for the playoffs is enough to make you feel like the playoffs can’t help but come sooner than ever.
Call it optimism or joy or even pride, it’s all there for those who want to lean into it. It might feel weird to feel like that in the immediate aftermath of elimination, but it’s what maintains excitement for the offseason. To look ahead to a draft and not sweat out needing to win a lottery (although this would be a pretty good one to win). Knowing that free agency is on the way in July and be OK with laying low for it because, ideally, there’s a short list of things for Adams to address.
In essence, it’s the official departure from the darkness of the tunnel and virtual confirmation that the light at the end isn’t another train. There’s happiness in relief and there’s satisfaction in how it’s coming together before your eyes. That’s why you can look back at this season with a smile.
No matter what you’re feeling after the Sabres elimination in Game 80 of the season, feel it. Embrace it. Get it out of your system. Do what makes you feel contented. Just know that whether you’re disappointed, ripe with angst, or over the moon about where things are, everything is going in the right direction.