Sabres desperate for playoffs

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:14 AM ET

Whether it be in reference to the controversial wide receiver who is now a Bill or the city a two-hour drive to the north, Buffalonians have T.O. on the brain these days.

T.O. -- as in Terrell Owens -- made headlines across the United States this week (imagine that!) when he did not show up to voluntary workouts with the Buffalo Bills, saying he prefers to work with a personal trainer instead. Owens does vow to be on hand when mandatory off-season practices begin.

Meanwhile, T.O. -- as in Toronto -- also was in the news in western New York on Monday when it was revealed that Rogers was looking into the possibility of bringing a second regular-season game to Rogers Centre per season. Already paranoid about losing their team to Toronto one day, the loyal members of Bills Nation understandably are outraged about potentially being screwed out of yet another home date at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Either way, the trend is clear: The Bills have usurped the NHL's Sabres as the hot topic of conversation in Buffalo.

From the moment Owens inked a one-year, $6.5-million US deal with Buffalo earlier this month, the community was abuzz, the exact impact Bills officials hoped the signing would have.

It has been a while since the Bills were the flavour du jour like this.

Since the end of the NHL's ugly labour lockout in 2005, it was the Sabres who captured the imagination of the city with back-to-back Eastern Conference final appearances and a Presidents Trophy in 2006-07.

But that has changed. With the Sabres having missed the playoffs last season and in danger of doing it again, no one knows the importance of reaching the post-season this time around more than Sabres coach Lindy Ruff.

It means increased revenues. It means more demand for season tickets. And it means keeping the Sabres relevant in a city where the Bills have become Boss once again.

"It is extremely important we make the playoffs," Ruff said during a phone interview last night. "We are sometimes the heartbeat of the city and have been, given that the Bills haven't made the playoffs (since Jan. 8, 2000).

"We NEED to make it."

The Sabres, just 2-5-1 in their past eight games, are in danger of missing the post-season for the fifth time in seven seasons, trailing the eighth-place Montreal Canadiens by five points for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering play yesterday. That possibility left one Buffalo broadcaster on local station WGR wondering if Ruff's job might be in jeopardy if they don't make it, although it would not take one of the NHL's best coaches very long to find new work if he is punted on to the unemployment line.

The Sabres needed a huge third-period comeback Wednesday to defeat the Florida Panthers 5-3, a turnaround that Ruff feels could ignite his team on a much-needed winning streak.

"I think those types of periods can give you momentum," Ruff said. "And so does having Ryan Miller back."

Coming back from a high ankle injury, Miller's return to the Sabres net tonight has many fans fitting him for a Superman cape. Yet, despite his 29 victories and 2.50 goals-against average, the veteran goalie said yesterday he has no miracles up his hockey sleeves when he takes to the HSBC Arena ice against the Maple Leafs.

Said Miller: "I'm a goalie. I go out. I try to stop the puck. If I can help make a difference, I want to do it. But my no means (am I) a guarantee, a saviour."

During his rehab stint, Miller was bumped out of his locker in the Sabres dressing room. With Patrick Lalime and Mikael Tellqvist occupying the two stalls designated for goalies, Miller was banished to a blue folding chair.

By leading his team to the post-season, Miller will get his locker back.

And, in the process, might put the Sabres back into the limelight in Buffalo.


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