This one far from over

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:41 AM ET

BUFFALO -- Ladies and gentlemen, what we've got ourselves here is a gen-u-ine playoff series.

There have been three one-goal games, last night's being a 4-3 decision for the Buffalo Sabres over the Carolina Hurricanes. There have been stretches of domination for both teams. There have been great plays and strange plays and heroic plays.

And the Eastern Conference final is only three games in, with the Sabres holding a 2-1 edge.

That's what happens when you have two skilled, confident teams. Each has the ability to make the other look bad -- for a while. But don't get too comfortable because it's like the weather in the Maritimes. In a few minutes, it's going to change.

For a stretch of 14 minutes or so last night, the Sabres were by far the better team. In that span, they scored four times, easily trumping Cory Stillman's goal that had opened the scoring for Carolina.

Chris Drury started the outburst on a power play with 30 seconds left in the first period. Then Daniel Briere popped a pair in the second. And at the 12:55 mark, Ales Kotalik scored what turned out to be the winner.

It also turned out to be Carolina goaltender Cam Ward's last action of the night. He was yanked in favour of Martin Gerber.

"It's extremely frustrating," Ward said. "I want to be on the ice and battle through those moments instead of coming out. But for whatever reason, that sparked the team."

None of the goals was his fault, but that didn't matter. "It's just the nature of the position," he said, "that you're going to be disappointed if you let in four goals, whether it's your fault or not."

With Gerber --who started his evening stopping a clean breakaway by Mike Grier -- in the net, the resilient Hurricanes started to take over and narrowed the gap to 4-3 with a little more than four minutes left. But at that point, it was the turn of the Sabres defence to dominate.

"They got a power-play goal off a rebound and we really had to tighten up," said Buffalo defenceman Jay McKee, once again a tower of strength. "In the regular season, you can still go for it. One game, if you lose, doesn't mean as much as it does now.

"For most of the period, we were playing our aggressive game, but once they got that one goal, we really had to tighten up."

There was no sense of depression in the Carolina room. Just frustration. They feel, as do the Sabres, that if they do things right, they'll win. But they didn't feel they did enough right last night.

IDENTITY

"We've got to be at least 100 games into the season," defenceman Aaron Ward said. "We've got to know that the identity of this team requires everybody to be moving in the same direction at the same time.

"It was just like Game 1. Didn't skate. Took too many penalties. Then woke up in the third because it's a required response because of desperation."

But that 14-minute lull, fuelled by four consecutive Buffalo power plays -- and another one on the way had Kotalik not scored -- spelled the end for the Hurricanes.

"As a hockey player you get that sense that momentum starts to shift," Ward said. "They're controlling play a little bit and you start taking those penalties. It's easy to say, 'Well, stop taking them,' but when you're running around, and you've got 22,000 people moaning and groaning every time somebody gets touched out there -- and we were touching them -- it's pretty much demanded by the rules of hockey that we're going to get penalties."

So now, the Sabres have a 2-1 lead and are in a position to take over. But the way this series is going, that seems unlikely. It's showing all the signs of a seven-gamer.


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