Penguins 3, Sabres 2, OT

Friday, May 11th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) _ Darius Kasparaitis was shocked, Jaromir Jagr was drained and Mario Lemieux was thinking about the bottom line.

``We just met the budget,'' said Lemieux, Pittsburgh's owner-turned-player after the Penguins eliminated the Buffalo Sabres from the NHL playoffs with a 3-2 victory Thursday night.

The Penguins advanced to the Eastern Conference finals when Kasparaitis - the unlikeliest of players - scored 13:01 into overtime to end Game 7.

The victory guarantees Lemieux at least two more home playoff dates and, more importantly, a chance to win his third Stanley Cup.

``This is why I came back, to be a part of the team and to live a dream, and hopefully we'll get to our dream, which is to win the Stanley Cup,'' said Lemieux, the Hall of Famer who returned last December after a 3 1/2-year retirement. ``I'll enjoy this for about 12 hours. Then we have to get back on the ice.''

Next up for Pittsburgh are the defending Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils. The Penguins won't have much time to recover from their back-to-back overtime wins over Buffalo. The conference finals begin Saturday night in New Jersey.

The Western Conference finals begin Saturday afternoon in Denver, where the Colorado Avalanche will play the St. Louis Blues.

Lemieux played the hero in Tuesday's 3-2 Pittsburgh victory, forcing overtime in Game 6 by scoring with 78 seconds left in regulation.

Thursday, it was Kasparaitis' turn.

``I've dreamed about this goal for nine years. And I can't believe I did it,'' said Kasparaitis, whose goal was only the second of his playoff career. ``I think I'll never do it again. I can't believe I scored a goal.''

The goal didn't happen the way he always played it out in his mind, but Kasparaitis will take it.

``My dream was to take the puck and beat the whole team by myself,'' he said. ``It didn't happen. But that's a nice goal, too.''

The Sabres, 1-4 in Game 7, were left wondering what went wrong, squandering two one-goal leads for the second straight game.

Buffalo will now enter an uncertain offseason as goalie Dominik Hasek and forward Doug Gilmour are contemplating retirement. Late-season additions Donald Audette and Steve Heinze can be unrestricted free agents.

``You almost feel like you let them down,'' defenseman Rhett Warrener said. ``You know they're getting close to the end, and I really felt we had a team that could do very well in the playoffs.''

Hasek, who contemplated retiring after last season, only to change his mind to make one more bid to win his first Stanley Cup, acknowledged that this could be the end for him.

``It's possible this could be my last game in Buffalo,'' he said. ``I need like two or three weeks to make my decision.''

Heinze and J.P. Dumont scored for the Sabres.

The final three games of this series ended in overtime, all settled by 3-2 scores

``It's a hollow feeling right now,'' Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. ``I can't take any consolation that we played well.''

Lang, who tied it 2-2 with nine minutes left in regulation, and Martin Straka had a goal and assist for the Penguins, who reached the conference finals for the fourth time.

Andrew Ference also scored for the Penguins, while Jagr had three assists.

Jagr was emotional following the game, realizing that a loss could have finished his Pittsburgh career. Although he's under contract for next season, the speculation is he could be traded because of his high salary.

``Before the game, I was thinking a little bit. My first years were successful, winning two Stanley Cups,'' Jagr said. ``And I'm thinking I was very lucky, and if it is my last year, if God is upstairs, I cannot leave like that. It would not be fair.''

Notes: Pittsburgh won its first-round series against Washington in Game 6 when Straka scored in overtime. ... Because of scheduling difficulties, the Sabres were forced to paint the Stanley Cup logos in the neutral zone early. They aren't supposed to be appear until the conference finals. With an arena football game in Buffalo on Friday, and the possibility of the Sabres playing host to a game on Saturday, the team went ahead and painted the logos on the ice earlier this week. ... Hasek is 0-2 in seventh games. ... It was the 27th Game 7 to go into overtime and the 23rd game in this year's playoffs that required extra time, second only to the 28 in 1993.

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