It was sad enough to lose the Stanley Cup, and to lose the deciding game in a third overtime.

But it was even more regrettable for the Sabres to lose this way -- wondering if the league's controversial in-the-crease rule might have kept them alive, if only league officials had ruled that Brett Hull's foot was in the crease on his game-winning goal in the third OT.

Fans in Buffalo will look back on that 2-1 triple overtime defeat for years to come, the way they reflect on Scott Norwood's missed field goal in Super Bowl XXV. They will shake their heads and wonder if there is some hex on our sports teams, after all.

Certainly the Sabres will never forget it. They played a courageous sixth game. They played a strong physical game on the brink of elimination. They showed remarkable guts.

So regardless of the explanation -- and league director of officials Bryan Lewis said the play was reviewed and the call was correct -- the Sabres couldn't help thinking it was a lack of guts on the part of the league that prevailed in the end.

"What do you think?" said Michael Peca, one of the few Sabres who were available in the dressing room afterward. The Sabres refused to open their room until a half hour after the game, until they received some explanation from the the league on why Hull's goal had not been reviewed.

"I mean, it's a case where they didn't have the nerve after all the celebration to call the goal back. What can you do? It's over, and I guess it'll be a story for a long time."

Unfortunately, it's another tainted story for the NHL, which has struggled to establish itself as a big-time American sport and doesn't need controversies like this one in its ultimate game.

Just the same, I can't imagine anyone dismissing this Sabres team as a failure. It would be an injustice to write them off just as another Buffalo disappointment, the latest installment in the chronicle of a losing town.

Think back to two summers ago, when the organization was coming apart at the seams, when fans were swearing off the Sabres after the ouster of Ted Nolan and cursing the incoming regime.

If someone had told you then that they would reach the conference finals in the first year, and the Cup finals the year after that, wouldn't you have dismissed it as the fanciful daydream of some twisted mind?

You'd have taken it, wouldn't you? Over the last three postseasons, the Sabres have reached the second round, the conference finals and the Cup finals in succession. In a lot of so-called major sports towns, that would be seen as cause for hope and celebration. There was a lot fo the city to be proud of.

"Absolutely," Peca said. "The last two games were great games for us. A break here or there . . . we needed a break to win the game tonight and ultimately it didn't happen. They got the break."

"It's not important to please people outside this locker room," Peca said. "It's not a priority of ours to please people outside this locker room. We've fought for respect. We believe in ourselves. We've said time and time again that's all that mattered. We didn't surprise ourselves. I'll leave it at that."

It's also too bad that the Stars have to live with questions about their championship, because they were a worthy and deserving winner.

If you're a real hockey fan -- as opposed to the frontrunners who attached themselves to the team so they could have a rare excuse to party in the downtown area -- you should feel privileged to have seen a team like Dallas up close over a two-week run.

One of the misfortunes of the modern, watered-down NHL is that you don't get many opportunities to see the best players from around the league, especially those from the West.

You can't walk away from this Cup final without a heightened respect for a lot of the Stars, many of them veterans who have dignified their sport for more than a decade without losing one ounce of their desire to have their names inscribed on that silver cup.

Jere Lehtinen, the classy Finn, would have been my pick for series MVP. Lehtinen scored three goals in the series and was a quiet force on defense. It was obvious why he is Michael Peca's perennial rival for the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward. He was a better player than Michael Peca in the series.

Joe Nieuwendyk was a revelation. He might be the most underpublicized star of the past decade. Richard Matvichuk, the solid "defensive defenseman", was everywhere, blocking shots and taking the body and making the simple, effective play at all times.

How can you not feel a twinge of joy for Mike Modano, who was once derided as the softest player in hockey but redefined himself under Ken Hitchcock and was a two-way force against the Sabres?

But even more so, you couldn't help feeling sorry for the Sabres. You can't follow a team around for two straight months of a playoff season without gaining tremendous admiration for them.

In time, they'll realize they lost to the better team. To carry around a grudge over a toe in the crease would only take away from all they accomplished. Besides, there's nothing they can do about it now.

"Well, we received an apology last year for a goal that cost us Game Two in the conference final," Peca said. "But I'm sure we won't get an apology this time."