Lindy Ruff was a wide-eyed rookie defenseman the last time the Buffalo Sabres were in the conference finals.
"I was in total awe of the whole situation," Ruff said. "You thought, `I'm going to go through this every year.' It just didn't happen."It's taken 18 years for Buffalo to get back, enough time for Ruff to become a rookie again. The first-year coach will lead his young Sabres, who are just as awed as he was in 1980, into Saturday's Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Washington Capitals.
"We're the least experienced team with players in this position," Ruff said. "The players are a little naive about the whole thing, too. They're hungry, and there's no fear there."
Neither Buffalo nor Washington has ever won the Stanley Cup, and Buffalo's 1975 six-game loss to Philadelphia marks the only time either franchise has been to the Cup finals. One of them will make it this time, and the prospect has brought both cities a dose of hockey fervor unseen in years.
"Since I've been here, there have been a lot of ups and downs - more downs than ups," said ninth-year forward Rob Ray, the Sabres' longest serving veteran. He has played for three coaches, two general managers, two team presidents and a new owner since 1995.
"It's nice to be a part of this. It's something very big for a lot of people in (Buffalo), a lot of fans who hung in there and never gave up on the team. Finally, we're getting something back."
Lines were long as tickets for the three scheduled games for Buffalo in this series sold out in less than three hours. The city never has won a title in any major pro sport, and a championship would be an especially sweet payoff for long-suffering Sabres fans.
In Washington, it would mean something completely different. There were no huge lines for tickets this week, and Game 1 was the only one of the four in Washington sold out as of Friday. In an area where the Redskins reign supreme and the Wizards, Orioles, Georgetown and D.C. United have all raised at least one banner, the Capitals have yearned for the type of attention they are starting to get now.
"Everybody loves a winner, and we want to try to win a Cup," Washington goaltender Olaf Kol-zig said. "I think it'd be huge for the city of Washington. Not only for our city's pride, but for hockey in general, we'd be accepted a little more as a professional team here."
Both the Caps and Sabres suffer from the impression that they are one-man teams. Buffalo's Dominik Hasek, who led the Czech Republic to an Olympic gold medal in February and has a seven-game winning streak, is considered the best goalie in the world. Kolzig has been even better in the playoffs, with three shutouts and the league's best save percentage.
Subtract the goalies, and Washington would be a clear favorite to win the series handily. Peter Bondra scored 52 goals during the regular season, while the Sabres didn't have anyone with even 52 points. Adam Oates had 58 assists. Esa Tikkanen and Brian Bellows add valuable experience, and the Caps' penalty-killing units were the best in the NHL since the 1967 expansion.
"They have some scary guys," Buffalo forward Curtis Brown said. "With Peter Bondra having 52 goals, that line is very scary. We're going to have to do the job on those guys. We can't afford to have them outperform us. We have to contain those good players they have."
For Buffalo, only Hasek and defensemen Jason Woolley and Alexei Zhitnik have ever been this far in the playoffs, but the youthful mixture of low-round draft choices and minor trade acquisitions has come through in the season's second half. The Sabres have the NHL's best record since Jan. 1 (22-10-11) and have not lost two consecutive games since December.
Their power play is tops in the NHL during the postseason - scoring 25 percent of the time - and Hasek hasn't been required to produce a shutout. Donald Audette, a ninth-round draft pick in 1989, and Matthew Barnaby, chosen in the fourth round in 1992, lead Buffalo with 10 points apiece in the playoffs.
"They scored just as many goals as we did," Washington coach Ron Wilson said. "It's just spread throughout the lineup."