Filling a familiar role

PATRICK WILLIAMS -- For SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 12:47 AM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- Way back in a different era, in a different NHL, Buffalo Sabres defenceman Rory Fitzpatrick played an NHL playoff game.

And so being that it took Fitzpatrick a decade to get back on stage, he wasted little time in making his return to the Stanley Cup spotlight a good one.

Indeed, the Sabres' five-year NHL playoff drought paled in comparison to the NHL postseason drought that Fitzpatrick lugged with him to Philadelphia this week.

That drought for Fitzpatrick ended 10 years to the day on Friday when Fitzpatrick again stepped into Stanley Cup playoff action for Game 4 of the Sabres' Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the Philadelphia Flyers at a loud, surly Wachovia Center. The Flyers scratched out a 5-4 win that evened the series at two games apiece heading into Sunday afternoon's Game 5 back at the HSBC Arena in Buffalo.

Prior to Friday night, Fitzpatrick last appeared in an NHL playoff game on April 26, 1996, dressing for the Montreal Canadiens in a 5-3 loss to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

Since then, it's been 10 years, 31 AHL playoff games and even three postseason contests in the old IHL. Throw in 347 AHL and 27 IHL regular-season games during that playoff drought for good measure.

Fitzpatrick stepped in for Teppo Nuuminen, who went out with an irregular heartbeat after playing in Game 3. So, Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff paired Fitzpatrick up on the right side of Dmitri Kalinin, and the 31-year-old American-born defenceman logged 15:10 of ice time.

"I felt good," Fitzpatrick said afterward. "I think I've been able to stay in shape, watch the series closely, so I felt pretty capable (about stepping in)."

Nuuminen's return date is not known.

Fitzpatrick's opening shift came during Buffalo's first power play of the contest, and Fitzpatrick helped the Sabres get to work. Cranking a long shot from the high right boards into traffic in front of Philadelphia goaltender Robert Esche, Fitzpatrick saw his throw-in on net nick Thomas Vanek's stick and sneak past Esche.

The goal immediately silenced the juiced-up Wachovia Center crowd and put the Sabres up 1-0 just 2:34 off the opening face-off.

From there, Fitzpatrick skated 22 more shifts and left Ruff a satisfied coach.

"I thought Fitzy played well," Ruff said in the post-game press conference afterward of Fitzpatrick, who went 4-5-9 in 56 regular- season games with the Sabres this season.

Exactly how ramped up is the intensity from the regular season to the opening round of playoff hockey, especially for a player with just 34 playoffs games over the past decade?

"Playoffs are always a big jump," Fitzpatrick replied. "I've been through it at different levels and in the NHL."

But from league to league, the talent level aside, Fitzpatrick would contend that the feel of the postseason does not vary all that much, no matter the league.

"In the first round in the AHL playoffs, the crowds fizzle off for a little bit there, but once you get in the later rounds of the playoffs, it's very similar. Crowds are into it, and players are playing hard."

"The level of intensity and importance is the same."


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