When the Buffalo Sabres last played in the Stanley Cup finals, Gerald Ford was in the White House, "Saturday Night Live" had yet to hit the airwaves and former Washington Capital and current Sabre Joe Juneau was 7 years old.
The Sabres are not quite there yet, but they certainly can see it from their current location. Tonight's 5-2 victory over the lifeless Toronto Maple Leafs gave the Sabres a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals.
A victory in Game 5 Monday night at Air Canada Centre would give the Sabres their first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals since 1975.
"To say the least, I was pleased with the effort," Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff said. "I think the key to it all is that we really came out skating hard."
With seven consecutive playoff victories at Marine Midland Arena, the Sabres are the only team in the playoffs that is undefeated at home. For the second time in as many games, their biggest offensive assault came in the third period. On Thursday night it was three goals; tonight it was four.
"We were ready to play," Maple Leafs defenseman Bryan Berard said. "But when we hit the ice, we left the brains in the locker room. That's the worst performance I've seen from us."
Geoff Sanderson led the way for Buffalo with back-to-back goals in the second period. Even tough-guy Rob Ray, who hadn't scored a goal since March 6, 1998, put one into the net tonight, also in the second.
"Obviously, you're firing on all cylinders when Razor gets a goal," Ruff cracked.
Stu Barnes flipped the puck in front of the net, and Ray, with his back to the net, whacked it down and through his legs, the legs of defenseman Alexander Karpovtsev and between the legs of goaltender Curtis Joseph. Ray was so excited that during the second-period break, he called his parents in his native Stirling, Ontario, to share the good news.
"It was sweet, it was unbelievable," said Ray, who played in only his third game this postseason. "It was pretty cool for my family."
Just as they did Thursday night, the Sabres capitalized on several Maple Leafs mistakes. Their first goal, by Dixon Ward, was short-handed, the second in as many games for Buffalo and a sign of the Leafs' repeated sloppiness.
Said Toronto Coach Pat Quinn said: "You think you train all year long not to make those errors, but that is what playoff hockey is all about. Mistakes are not anticipated, but that happened so there is not much we can do about it but recover."
Joseph was removed with the Maple Leafs trailing 5-0 after two periods and replaced by Glenn Healy. In one of the major surprises of the postseason, Joseph has allowed 17 goals in four games. Mats Sundin scored both of Toronto's goals. The first came on a penalty shot after Sabres defenseman Jay McKee was called for closing his hand on the puck in the crease.
Dominik Hasek, playing for the second time in the series since returning from chronic groin trouble, was solid. But that was all Buffalo needed from him. To a man, the Sabres say the biggest key to their success in this year's Eastern Conference finals is the bitter memory of last year's 4-2 loss in the same series to the Capitals.
"`We learned a valuable lesson last year that you can't take any one period or any one game for granted," Ruff said. "You've got to keep coming whether it's 1-0 or 2-0."
CAPTION: Buffalo, sticks high, celebrates goal by Rob Ray while Toronto goalie Curtis Joseph looks away. The Sabres are within one win of the Stanley Cup finals.