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Canes, Sabres Take Different Paths

Two cities. Two franchises. Two strategies. Two similar destinations.

Back in the 2005-06, the Carolina Hurricanes and Buffalo Sabres were two of the best teams in the NHL, compiling 112 and 110 points, respectively, en route to the Eastern Conference finals.

Both teams were, first and foremost, built for speed.

The Sabres were led by dipsy-doodling Russian Maxim Afinogenov, up-and-coming offensive defenseman Brian Campbell, skilled leaders Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, and emerging netminder Ryan Miller. Behind the bench was Lindy Ruff, one of the longest-tenured and most fiery coaches in the league.

The Carolina forward corps was a mix of young talent (Eric Staal, Justin Williams and Erik Cole), veteran savvy (first-year captain Rod Brind'Amour, Ray Whitney and Cory Stillman) and, eventually, grizzled trade deadline acquisitions (Doug Weight and Mark Recchi). The back end was a defense by committee, led by veterans Glen Wesley and Bret Hedican, rugged Mike Commodore, Aaron Ward and Nic Wallin, and puck-moving Czeck Frank Kaberle. In net was was first-year starter Martin Gerber, along with a rookie backup named Cam Ward who would make a name for himself by the end of the season. Peter Laviolette roamed the bench, implementing a run-and-gun style that would take the "new NHL" by storm.

Also on display were two drastically contrasting cities. The Triangle area is a 21st century American working city, riddled with technology and pharmaceutical companies. It's population was exploding, with Midwestern and Northeastern transplants relocating in droves to Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and Cary for the good weather, growing economy and reasonably priced housing.

One of the cities that felt the pinch of the Southern exodus was Buffalo, N.Y. A blue-collar factory city, the Sabres' hometown was filled with passionate sports fans, but a crumbling economy and dwindling population, several of which relocated to the Triangle. Empty factories, boarded up buildings and the bitter cold were the backdrop for a team that gave hope to the residents who stayed behind and pride to those who moved on to greener pastures.

As we know, it ended in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, with Carolina topping Buffalo and its depleted defense en route to the finals and, eventually, the Stanley Cup.

After the season, both teams had huge decisions to make. Buffalo GM Darcy Regier watched as J-P Dumont left for Nashville and gritty Mike Grier bolted for San Jose. Underrated d-man Jay McKee took a big suitcase of cash — and his rugged play — to St. Louis. Backup goalie Martin Biron's future with the club was clearly coming to an end — he wound up dealt to Philadelphia at the 2007 trade deadline. Regier also overpaid talented-but-oft-injured Tim Connolly nearly $3 million a year in cap space over three years.

Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford parted ways with Matt Cullen and Aaron Ward — both signed with the Rangers — and instead kept Wallin and Kaberle. Also signed was John Grahame to replace Gerber as the backup to Ward, the Conn Smythe winner the year before. Rentals Weight and Recchi returned to former teams in St. Louis and Pittsburgh, respectively. Low-priced replacements like Trevor Letowski were brought in to fill the void.

Buffalo's plan worked in the 2006-07 regular season, as they tied for the NHL lead with 113 points. Carolina's didn't, with the Canes missing the playoffs and falling to 11th in the Eastern Conference. But Buffalo was again unable to climb to the top of the mountain, falling to the Senators in the playoffs. More importantly, Regier had passed on discounted contracts for Briere and Drury, and both left Buffalo after the season for more money elsewhere. The team did match the Oilers' huge offer sheet to emerging superstar Thomas Vanek, but they surely weren't happy about it.

The Canes tried to reassemble their Cup roster, bringing back Cullen and keeping together the foundation of the team that once brought them glory.

For both teams, it ended with a high draft pick and no postseason games in 2007-08.

So here we are, nearly two-and-a-half seasons removed from a time when the two teams redefined how the game was played coming out of the lockout, and both are at a crossroads. The Sabres hitched their wagon to Vanek and Miller along with their young, speedy players like Derek Roy and Jason Pominville. They moved Campbell at last season's trade deadline once they realized they'd be unable to re-sign him and replaced him with Craig Rivet, a reliable but not elite blueliner who became their captain. Carolina still has the skeleton of the team that won the Cup — including Staal, Brind'Amour, Williams, Ward and Whitney — plus new faces like Tuomo Ruutu and Sergei Samsonov. But the defense has been overhauled with speed and skill (featuring Joni Pitkanen and Joe Corvo), along with grit and toughness (Tim Gleason and Dennis Seidenberg). Only Kaberle and Wallin remain, and in much lesser roles. Ward, like Miller, is still the man between the pipes and is growing into being an everyday No. 1 goalie.

Most significantly, Carolina made a change on the bench early this season, sending Laviolette on his way and bringing back the man he replaced, Paul Maurice. Even the men on the bench assisting Maurice are different from past seasons — former Albany head coach Tom Rowe and Hall of Famer Ron Francis guide the players from ice level while Laviolette's two bench associates, Kevin McCarthy (associate coach from the press box) and Jeff Daniels (Rowe's replacement as coach and GM with the River Rats) are no longer in their familiar spots behind the Hurricanes players at ice level. Buffalo still has Ruff behind the bench, but another year out of the playoffs could possibly lead to a change.

As both teams approach the midway point of the 2008-09 season, they are closer to being playoff bubble teams than the conference frontrunners they once were. The Canes have recommitted to building their system, keeping their draft picks and developing young talent. The Sabres continue to draft a mix of size and skill, but are doing so by utilizing more video and less on-site scouting — a cost-cutting move they claim won't affect the quality of their decisions.

They are two franchises that began the post-lockout era at similar places, took different paths and find themselves again staring at each other in the standings — but this time it's near the fringe of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt instead of the top. And while it's more than two years since their spirited playoff tilt, there's no doubt that when the teams meet Jan. 17 in Buffalo for the first of four regular season games, it won't just be about two teams battling for a playoff spot.

It's a story of two cities whose fans still harbor a resentment toward each other. One is a wilting metropolis whose population still has more pride than 99 percent of American cities, especially when it comes to their sports teams. The other is a region that continues to expand, one that even many Western New Yorkers now call home because of the benefits of the Southern Light living it provides compared to their hometowns. But the Triangle is still, first and foremost, Tobacco Road — the center of the college basketball universe, not the home of the Carolina Hurricanes.

Does that make one region better than the other? When both arenas are packed with passionate fans who love their respective teams, does it matter that one city has a long professional sports history and the other is still a neophyte in major league pro athletics? Is it of consequence that one region is growing and expanding while the other is shrinking and struggling?

For 60 minutes of hockey, be it in HSBC Arena or the RBC Center, none of that matters when these two teams meet. The teams' different roads to success, failure and mediocrity are thrown out the window and all that matters is this: Canes vs. Sabres.

That rivalry has meant a lot the past few seasons to both cities, and will again this year. The four head-to-head matchups could decide the seasons of both franchises and, above all, give bragging rights to one of two similar, but oh-so-different cities and fanbases.

And that's what a rivalry is all about.