NEW YORK -- In the Stanley Cup playoffs, there are no style points. The two-month grind is about one thing: survival.
On Sunday afternoon, the Presidents' Trophy-winning Buffalo Sabres did just that with their wildly exciting 5-4 series clinching victory over the never-say-die New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. They survived.
"It's a big relief any time you can win a playoff series," Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere said. "It's not easy."
Evidently, Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff agreed.
"He [Ruff] told me we scared them to death," said Rangers head coach Tom Renney, referring to his brief postgame chat with Ruff.
Indeed, this series proved not as easy for the Sabres as most thought it would be. In fact, less than 48 hours earlier, in the late stages of Game 5, the Sabres' playoff survival seemed very much in doubt. They were down by a goal in the final minute of regulation time. The idea of going down 3-2 in the series with the next game on the road couldn't have been too exciting a possibility for Buffalo.
But, as they've done for most of their magical season, the Sabres found a way to survive and thrive.
"When you have a team like the Sabres down, you have to get them out," said three-time Cup winner and Rangers winger Brendan Shanahan, referring to his team's Game 5 meltdown. "We left the door open, and they walked through."
In Game 6, when the Sabres found themselves on the right side of a one-goal lead in the dying seconds, they did what the Rangers couldn't do -- lock it down.
"It gets wild in the last minute," said Sabres' co-captain Chris Drury, hockey's big-game hunter who tied Game 5 with just 7.7 ticks left on the clock. "We just kept trying to get the puck out. They had some good chances right down to the very end."
To a man, the Sabres wanted no part of Game 7. They came to New York City with one goal: close out the series. And they did it -- barely.
"We know that hockey can be a game of bounces," said Briere, who did his part by contributing three assists in the victory. "If you get into a Game 7, you never know what might happen. We just wanted to leave it all on the ice today."
Ruff didn't want to take a chance in an all-or-nothing Game 7, either. To that end, he opted to do something he hadn't done all season. Ruff decided to change on the fly to ensure that the Drury line (with Jochen Hecht and Dainius Zubrus) would go head-to-head against the Rangers' top trio (Jaromir Jagr, Michael Nylander and Martin Straka).
The move wasn't without risk.
"It is a little tricky to do something like that when we haven't done it all year," Ruff admitted. "You have to make sure you get your change right and you don't get short or with too many."
Outside of a late first-period shift when the Sabres failed to get the change they desired and Nylander netted an even-strength goal, the three on the Drury line did a creditable job of keeping their wits about them when No. 68 and his Czech mates pushed the attack. And, in that final minute, they helped keep the Rangers from pulling a role reversal.
On Sunday afternoon, for the Sabres, it was all about survival. Drury, the only guy in the Sabres' room with a Stanley Cup ring, understands that better than most. That's why he smiles a sly smile when asked whether his team can play better.
"We've made it to the conference final," Drury said. "We must be doing something right."
Whenever you can survive and advance in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it doesn't matter how you do it. It just matters that you do.
Coach Renney opted for some lineup changes after the crushing Rangers loss in Game 5. The club inserted rookie left wing Nigel Dawes, who played most of the year with the team's AHL affiliate in Hartford. Dawes started the game on a line with center Sean Avery and right wing Shanahan. That trio finished with a combined minus-8 rating. Unfortunately, Dawes' biggest impact came when he slid to block a shot by Sabres' defenseman Dmitri Kalinin early in the second period. Kalinin's shot deflected off Dawes and past goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to tie the score at 1-1. ... Renney also made a change to his top line, moving Straka to the first unit with Jagr and Nylander, pushing Marcel Hossa back to the fourth line. ... The Rangers were the last playoff team to lose a home playoff game. They'd won their first four postseason games at the Garden during this playoff campaign. The loss snapped a nine-game home winning streak that stretched back into the regular season. ... In a statistical oddity; each team had 164 shots coming into Game 6. On Sunday, the Sabres outshot the Rangers 36-29.