The Prince of Wales Trophy sat there, on a table at center ice, after the Buffalo Sabres' 4-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight that clinched the Eastern Conference title.
For all of the attention it was getting, this glistening piece of hardware might as well have contained radioactive material. Sabres captain Michael Peca briefly posed in front of it while shaking hands with NHL Vice President Colin Campbell. But Peca refused to touch it. In fact, not a single Buffalo player or coach would put so much as a finger on a prize the franchise had won only once before -- and that was 24 years ago.
"That didn't look like the Stanley Cup, so I wasn't too keen on wanting to pick it up," Peca said. "There's a lot of work left."
Indeed, there is the Stanley Cup finals, against either Colorado or Dallas. And as happy as the Sabres might have been about winning their best-of-seven series with the Maple Leafs, 4-1, their focus has always been on a much larger goal.
After losing the Eastern Conference finals to the Washington Capitals last season, the Sabres were determined to go not one, but two steps further this season. After all, they had seen what happened to the Capitals after they enthusiastically hoisted the Wales Trophy after eliminating the Sabres in Buffalo.
"That's a great sign," Sabres winger and former Capital Joe Juneau said of his team's refusal to make contact with the trophy. "Last year, the first time there, you're happy, you're pumped and it's the first trophy you maybe win in this league. But this trophy doesn't mean much, really. I think all the guys understand what's left and the work that's going to need to be done."
Said Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff: "We're going to the dance and we're not going to stand on the sidelines. We're hoping to find a partner, and then we'll hold the big one up."
The Sabres boast the greatest goaltender in the world in Dominik Hasek (20 saves). But they won this series on the strength of an offensive explosion that they hadn't shown until the Toronto series.
"We realized they were a good hockey team," Maple Leafs Coach Pat Quinn said. "Usually, all the credit went to Dominik, and he is terrific. But they allowed their team to grow and I think they got little credit as a team."
Although tonight's victory seemed like a forgone conclusion after the way the Sabres dominated the lethargic Leafs Saturday night to take a 3-1 series lead, it took some hard work to achieve.
The teams played a tight, scoreless first period. Then came a wild second period in which the Leafs scored two goals -- the first going off the stick of Buffalo defenseman Alexei Zhitnik -- and the Sabres had an answer for each.
It looked as if Toronto would take a 2-0 lead, but a goal was disallowed because Toronto captain Mats Sundin was ruled in the crease.
At 9 minutes 23 seconds of the third period, winger Vaclav Varada, who had tied the game at 2-2 in the second, seemed to give the Sabres their go-ahead goal. But after a lengthy review, it was determined he had kicked the puck past goaltender Curtis Joseph.
Enter young Erik Rasmussen, who had spent most of this season with Rochester of the American Hockey League. He knocked in a rebound off a shot by Brian Holzinger, who skated the length of the ice during a Toronto line change, to put the Sabres in front to stay at 11:35 of the third.
Holzinger "drove their `D' wide on the left boards and turned up and fired a shot on net," Rasmussen said. "The puck just came to the other side. I was going to the net and it was just lying there. I swatted at it, and it ended up going in."
Seven minutes later, Dixon Ward added an empty-netter.
"The longer it went as a close game, the better for us," Rasmussen said. "We wanted to give ourselves a chance in the third period to win the game. All we wanted was a chance.
"Coming out of the second period, we said, `Hey, we've got 20 minutes to win the series.' "
CAPTION: Dominik Hasek (20 saves) celebrates following series-clinching victory over Toronto. Buffalo advances to finals for second time since inception in 1970.
CAPTION: Sabres winger Vaclav Varada (25) is mobbed by teammates after second-period goal tied game at 2.