This city has been here before. Not once, not twice. Not three times, not four.

In the last 24 years, Buffalo has had a team play for five major league championships -- the 1975 Stanley Cup finals and Super Bowls XXV through XXVIII. The five losses established a big-league record for futility.

The Sabres are aiming to put an end to that once and for all. They will try to change the widely held perception -- which grew mainly from the Bills' four consecutive Super Bowl defeats -- that Buffalo cannot win the big one.

"What a great feeling for the city," captain Michael Peca said of the Sabres' beating his hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, to capture the Eastern Conference title in five games. Buffalo opens the Stanley Cup finals against Dallas Tuesday. "The Sabres have a chance to win a championship and maybe put some of the disappointments from the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowls to rest."

Not to mention the fact that after the dominant offensive trio known as the "French Connection" put them in the spotlight in '75, the Sabres went 23 years without getting the chance to play for hockey's top prize.

Bolstered by the coaching of Lindy Ruff, a scrapper when he wore a Sabres uniform, this season's team has accomplished something that could not be done under the guidance of more renowned coaches Scotty Bowman or John Muckler or with star players such as Pat LaFontaine or Dale Hawerchuk.

After last season's Eastern Conference final loss to the Washington Capitals, Rob Ray, the most senior Sabre with 10 years of experience, began wondering whether he would join the list of Buffalo players who never had the chance to play for a Stanley Cup.

It was only after Ray, the NHL's regular season leader in penalty minutes (261), signed a two-year contract with an option did he start to think his dream could come true.

"Last year we were two games from the finals and fulfilling a dream," Ray said. "I was at the end of a contract and didn't know if I was going to be back. I had a feeling our team was going to be successful, and I wanted to be back."

Unlike the 1975 team, whose finesse was overpowered by the Philadelphia Flyers in the finals, today's Sabres are a rugged, hard-hitting bunch with great depth. They finished seventh in their division in the regular season, but they have shown enough determination, combined with underappreciated talent, to put together the league's best postseason record.

The Sabres overcame losing leading scorer Miroslav Satan for the first month of the playoffs because of a bad ankle sprain. They even compensated for MVP goaltender Dominik Hasek, who missed the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals with groin-muscle problems.

Reserve goaltender Dwayne Roloson skated in and led the Sabres to a split, and their confidence soared when Satan and Hasek returned for Game 3. Hasek has been less than his spectacular self, but the Sabres intensified their game and increased their scoring (21 goals in five games against the Maple Leafs) to cover for him.

"The only reason we're still here is because of our depth," said winger Dixon Ward, whose empty-net goal sealed last Monday night's series-clinching win over Toronto. "Over the past few years, we've learned one or two lines and four or five defensemen won't win the Cup. We have 20 guys all going in the same direction."

"I think we've made the public aware that this is a complete team," Peca said. "I really believe that our peers in the NHL believe we have a strong hockey club with a lot of depth and a lot of character, but it's been the public that has been hard to convince. The way we've played throughout the playoffs has done a good job of doing that."

The Sabres know only one thing can change the public's perception of Buffalo as a championship-less town: a Stanley Cup.

"Our goal was to win 16 games this spring," Ward said. "We're three-quarters of the way there. We have four wins to go. Getting there is not enough. Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. If we don't, we'll go through this summer thinking that we failed."