MAYBE THIS IS the real Eastern Conference final. Maybe we are watching the two best teams crash, crush and steal momentum from each other like crafty thieves.

For the fifth game in a row, this series between the young Buffalo Sabres and their been-there-done-that Olympic-caliber goaltender and a been-there-done-that Flyers team still holding auditions for the job of playoff goaltender came down to a single play, a single shot, one extra piece of execution. A failed clear in overtime, a slap shot that eluded two blockers, a juicy rebound, and the Flyers now find their margin of error, finally, down to nothing.

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The Buffalo Sabres took Game 5 of this series last night, winning, 4-3, in overtime when Michael Leighton's save of Mike Weber's slapshot bounced onto the stick of Tyler Ennis, who wristed into an empty net at 5 minutes, 31 seconds of the extra period.

Yes, Michael Leighton. Last seen looking behind him for Patrick Kane's Cup-winning goal in overtime, Leighton's relief appearance after Brian Boucher coughed up three early goals was shaping up to be another game-changing move by Peter Laviolette, another chapter in the goalie series that now rivals Rocky for sequels. Bob, Bouch and now, once again, Leights.

Where have you gone, Roman Cechmanek?

Until the ending, Leighton had stopped 20 Buffalo shots, extending a streak of being unscored upon that began in his final two shutout victories for Adirondack, the Flyers' farm team. Most of last night's saves were routine, but if Boucher had been able to make the routine on this night, the Flyers would be heading to Buffalo up, three games to two, instead of the reverse.

That said, there are plenty of reasons not to give up hope. There is this team's resilient history from a year ago. There is the possibility that Chris Pronger will return to the lineup. And there is their unqualified success as a road team this season, which bore out in the two games played in Buffalo this week.

There is also the nagging sense, which will hound the summer with one more loss, that the Flyers are capable of playing better than this, while the Sabres are not.

"We feel that we've had control of the puck in every game for the most part, and we've out-chanced them most of the games," Danny Briere said. "I don't know, outplayed is a strong word, but we believe that we are the better team, but there's not much time left to prove that."

The Sabres have the advantage because they have played this game of desperation longer than the Flyers, are leaning on recent habits not older ones.

Think about it. The Flyers seemed to have first place in the conference locked up in mid-February. The Sabres seemed to have a high draft pick locked up. Then the Sabres got a new owner, found some chemistry, and their goalie found his form. The Sabres finished 16-4-4, had the best record in the conference since Feb. 23.

The Flyers, of course, did not. They meandered to the finish, surrendering the first seed in that final week, promising all the while that the playoffs would amp them up again, cure them of their bad habits.

The Sabres said this series would prove they were not the team of their first 4 months. The Flyers said this series would prove they were not the team of the last 2 months.

Five games in, each team has proved its point.

Emphatically.

This has not been a series defined by loud fans and big-screen videos or bad calls by referees. It has been a series defined by opportunities, both cashed in and missed, and the Flyers have been out-urgency-ed in just a few too many of them.

You can argue that was not the case last night. It's an argument that holds up for about two periods of play, or roughly the amount of time it took your team to claw out of the hole that two awful goals and one on the power play put them in. The Flyers took over the game from the last half of the first period until they tied it at 3:36 of the third, but that sense of desperation dissipated in the minutes that followed. You could even argue that Buffalo had better chances until the Flyers made one final push in regulation, a push that earned them their fifth power play of the night, their 26th overall.

You know what happened. Another 0-fer. The Flyers are doing all the right things, they are just a tad slow, a step short, missing that little extra urgency that turns a rebound into a messy goal.

A series based on razor's edge advantages cannot afford that. It also cannot afford two goals to be scored from below the goal line. Especially when the goaltender on the other side nearly stole a gold medal two winters ago, and has arguably stolen a couple of games in this series as well.

So back to Buffalo we go, for an Easter Sunday matinee that means everything to your team. Who will start in goal? Who knows. Will Pronger be able to play? Who knows. The only certainty is the margin of error is finally down to zero, after 2 months of thisclose hockey that has tainted, and threatens to destroy, what was once a monumental season.

"We can't hang our heads," said Briere. "We were in a worse position than that last year, so if there is a group of guys who can do it, I believe in this group of guys here." *

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