Sabres Numminen Enjoying Playoff Success
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) _ If the young Buffalo Sabres require a cautious reminder of how not to take playoff success for granted, they need only look to their oldest player, Teppo Numminen.
It took 17 NHL seasons and 11 playoff appearances for the steady defenseman to finally celebrate a series victory, the drought ending when the Sabres eliminated the Philadelphia Flyers in six games this week.
Just don’t ask Numminen how excited he is.
``Well, first round, it doesn’t matter,″ he said. ``It’s about winning. It’s not about winning a couple of rounds. It’s about winning the Cup, and that’s the goal for us.″
Numminen and the Sabres advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinal, preparing to face the top-seeded Senators in a best-of-seven series that opens at Ottawa on Friday night.
While much of Buffalo is buzzing about the resurgent Sabres making a splash in their first postseason appearance since 2001, Numminen is keeping a very even keel.
``We took the first step and there’s a couple of steps ahead of us,″ he said. ``I think we’re going in the right direction.″
And that direction is not the one Numminen has been accustomed to in many springs past. Usually, it’s been an early plane ticket home to his native Finland for the defenseman.
Numminen’s postseason misfortunes have been the result of playing most of his career with a Winnipeg Jets/Phoenix Coyotes franchise notorious for its playoff collapses. During Numminen’s tenure, the Jets/Coyotes four times lost a Game 7 and three times squandered a 3-1 series lead, joining Washington as the only NHL franchise to do so that many times.
It didn’t matter how much talent _ Thomas Steen, Phil Housley, Dale Hawerchuk, Keith Tkachuk and Teemu Selanne _ those teams had, or where they finished in the regular season, the end result was always the same.
``They were good teams, but if you go the best to four, the best teams move on,″ Numminen said. ``We just weren’t good enough.″
Numminen’s fortune didn’t change when he was traded to Dallas in 2003-04, the Stars’ playoff run ending in a five-game first-round loss to Colorado.
After spending the NHL lockout tending to his family’s hockey stick-making business in Finland, Numminen signed last summer with the Sabres, a team searching for a veteran, mobile defenseman who could steady a young corps.
It couldn’t have worked out any better for both sides.
At 37, Numminen has been the Sabres’ most efficient defenseman. He finished second among the team’s blue-liners with 40 points (two goals and 38 assists), and had a respectable plus-minus rating of plus-6 while averaging more than 19 minutes a game.
His importance to the Sabres was, perhaps, best gauged when an irregular heartbeat forced Numminen to miss parts of Game 3 and all of Game 4 against the Flyers _ the two games Buffalo lost.
It’s no coincidence that Numminen’s return helped the Sabres bounce back and win the next two games.
``With him back in the lineup, it really settled things down,″ coach Lindy Ruff said. ``He was a key piece to our defense.″
``He’s huge,″ added defenseman Jay McKee, noting Numminen plays in all situations. ``When you have a guy who can do all those things as consistent as he does, that’s a real hard guy to replace.″
Numminen’s teammates might be more excited for him to finally reach the second round of the playoffs.
``I’ve played with him and I know how much people were on his back for never moving past the first round,″ said co-captain Daniel Briere, who previously played with Numminen in Phoenix. ``It’s a big accomplishment for him. And hopefully, it’s not the end of it.″
McKee said Numminen’s past is an important lesson for the Sabres, a young team that entered the playoffs with little postseason experience.
``A first-year guy wouldn’t know any better,″ McKee said. ``But you look over at Teppo’s stall and know that after all his years, he’s never gotten to the second round. ... You can’t take one shift for granted. That’s a lesson learned right there.″