ADVERTISEMENT

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Sabres, chipped and cracked from the barrage of a thousand blows, finally fell, unable to endure the force of one more jolt.

No, they didn't crumble. They didn't fall to pieces. They simply gave out while trying to keep everything together and accomplish what would have been a miraculous feat.

The patchwork Sabres, plagued by a fourth substantial loss on defense when veteran Jay McKee developed a strep infection, actually had a lead with about 18 minutes to go until the Stanley Cup finals.

That lead didn't hold up. The Carolina Hurricanes ended the Sabres' storybook run by scoring three third-period goals and winning, 4-2, in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday night in the RBC Center.

"Those guys in the room are a special group that never used an excuse all year long," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "Even tonight, they gave it everything they absolutely had."

That was little solace for Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere.

"Right now it's an empty feeling," Briere said. "Not too much you can think of that's going to make you feel good. When we look back I'm sure we'll be very proud of what we did and where we went with this team that nobody believed in from the start. But right now it seems like we're so close and so far at the same time."

Sabres defenseman Doug Janik made his first NHL point a big one when his long slap shot tied the game late in the second period, and 3.3 seconds before the intermission, Jochen Hecht gave the Sabres a 2-1 lead when he scored a soft goal on Hurricanes rookie goaltender Cam Ward.

The Sabres went into the game 9-0 when leading after two periods in the playoffs. The Hurricanes were 1-6 when trailing.

"We had them where we wanted them after the second period," Briere said. "We were confident, but we didn't have quite enough to get the job done tonight."

Carolina's Doug Weight tied the game 1:34 into the third period, and captain Rod Brind'Amour scored the winner on a power play with 8:38 to play.

Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell was in the penalty box for delay of game after he inadvertently sent the puck out of his own zone and into the stands.

Brind'Amour bolted in from the left circle to chip in a puck that had been waiting in the slot for what must've felt like a week for Sabres fans. It was right at defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick's feet, but he couldn't find it.

"They went to their power play again," said Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, who made 24 saves. "They've lived and they've died by it. Tonight, they lived."

The Hurricanes had scored on 32.6 percent of their home power plays. Brind'Amour's goal came on their fifth and final opportunity.

The Sabres were scoreless on four chances. They failed to muster a single shot on their last chance with 4:35 left in the game.

A Carolina rush prevented Miller from leaving the ice for the extra attacker. That led to Justin Williams' insurance goal with 52 seconds left. Miller scrambled back but ended up sitting in the crease, facing the net.

"Obviously, it hurts," Miller said. "But there's a lot of positives. This team should be together for a long time. We were a game away. We're proud, but very disappointed."

Carolina scored the first goal 12:05 into the game. Mike Commodore's one-timer in front of Buffalo's bench banked off Taylor Pyatt's shin and went in off Adam Mair.

The Sabres went 15:36 without a shot from late in the first period until nearly nine minutes into the second, but they charged back and finished the second period with a flourish.

Shortly after Sabres winger Jason Pominville nearly fished out a rebound for a goal, Miller made a theatrical glove save to thwart Eric Staal's shot earmarked for the top shelf.

Janik tied the game with 4:10 left in the second period.

Hecht gave the Sabres a 2-1 lead when he took a pass behind the cage from Campbell, crept out to Ward's left and slipped the puck between the post and the unwitting goalie.

"I don't think that being down is something that scares this team," Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette said. "There's actually a confidence that we can pull it together."

The Sabres couldn't hold on. The losses of defensemen Dmitri Kalinin, Teppo Numminen, Henrik Tallinder and McKee perhaps were a little too much to overcome against one of the NHL's most explosive clubs.

"One thing is we've never used excuses all year. We're not going to start now," Briere said. "We got beat, and that's the end of it."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com