By: Dan Bender
As a Buffalo sports fan born after the Super Bowl era Bills, good memories of our teams have been few and far between. I have very hazy recollections of Brett Hull’s controversial overtime goal in game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup finals and almost no memory of the Music City Miracle, although I can’t say I’d like to remember that heartbreaking game, which, to this day, remains the last Bills’ postseason appearance. The Sabres have made the playoffs a few times since the turn of the century, but are currently on a 6 year drought and it looks like it could become 7 if they are unable to turn things around soon. However, I will say that all the grief, pain, and disappointment endured from watching poor to mediocre Bills and Sabres teams year after year has forced me to cherish any brief moments of success that our professional sports teams have had. The notion that the less you have, the more you appreciate good things is applicable to the city of Buffalo and I believe this is why we have some of the greatest fans in sports. As the winless years pile up, our thirst for victory only intensifies.
I was only 10 years old when the Sabres had another forgettable season in 2003 and 2004 as they finished last in the Northeast division with a 37-34-7 record making it Buffalo’s 3rd consecutive year of missing the playoffs. Some names gained recognition that year including Maxim Afinogenov, Danny Briere, and Chris Drury, although they were mostly overshadowed by the subpar performance of the team. The following season was cancelled due to a player lockout and when hockey returned the next year, the Sabres’ roster was a mystery as it had been 2 years since game activity and former captain, Miroslav Satan, was traded away to the New York Islanders. If anything, Buffalonians thought it would be a 5th straight year without playoff hockey in Western New York.
The Birth of a Championship Roster: The 2005-2006 season marks the beginning of the “new NHL” in which rules were first put into place to eliminate the clutching and grabbing of past eras. Obstruction hooking, the trapezoid behind nets, and shootouts were all instituted as a way to encourage speed and skill. It was the perfect storm for the Sabres whose roster, whether by former GM Darcy Regier’s genius design or pure chance, was built for speed. They were ahead of the curve as many other teams’ rosters still emphasized size and strength which favored the older rules. Below is a snapshot of the Sabres’ main roster that year for those who need a little refresher:
The Sabres flew out of the gates with an early 6-2 record but were quickly brought back down to earth and were 8-9 by the middle of November. It seemed as though they were destined for yet another average year, but then something suddenly changed. Rallying around captains Chris Drury and Danny Briere, Buffalo started to click and they wouldn’t stop winning. They won 9 straight after this point and would only lose another 15 games in regulation for the remainder of the 82 game season. To put the upgrade in talent from the previous year in perspective, consider this: In the 2003-2004 season, the Sabres only had 5 players with 40 or more points. By the end of 2006, this number more than doubled with 11 such players in Teppo Numminen, JP Dumont, Jochen Hecht, Brian Campbell, Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, Tim Connolly, Danny Briere, Ales Kotalik, Chris Drury, and Maxim Afinogenov. Since the 2007-2008 season, there hasn’t been more than 7 players with 40 or more points on the roster at any point.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the Sabres had one of the best lineups in the league and began dominating the competition. Michigan State product, Ryan Miller, emerged as one of the NHL’s top goalies and was complimented by veteran Martin Biron who previously had backed up the legendary Dominik Hasek. The Sabres essentially had 2 starting goaltenders with Miller boasting a 30-14 record and a .914 save percentage while Biron was 21-8 with a .905 save percentage. One game I remember which displayed the elite talent the Sabres possessed was their 10-1 thrashing of the LA Kings, a game in which newbie Jason Pominville and Jochen Hecht each recorded hat tricks while 12 different players made the score sheet. It was a unique year in that if they were down late, a feeling that they could come back and win remained, similar to how many felt with the Bills’ Super Bowl teams. Perhaps it was mostly due to captain clutch himself, Chris Drury, but either way, these guys were faster and better than everyone else. Buffalo would go on to finish the season with a 52-24-6 (wins, losses, overtime losses) record and 110 points which was good enough to clinch the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference and 2nd in the Northeast only behind the star studded Ottawa Senators.
The Ottawa Rivalry: The Sabres had always been division foes with the Ottawa Senators, but the ’05 ’06 season amplified tensions between them. Ottawa’s roster was also loaded that year with players like Daniel Alfredsson, Zdeno Chara, Mike Fisher, Dany “50 in ’07” Heatley, and Jason Spezza. Though not as skilled as the aforementioned, the notorious agitator, Chris Neil, also held a roster spot and largely contributed to the Sabres’ distaste for the Sens. Ottawa appeared to be Buffalo’s Achilles heel as they were dominated by them early on losing the first 3 contests of the season 5-0, 10-4 (a game I unfortunately attended), and then 6-1. They were finally able to beat the Senators in a shootout in the 4th of 8 regular season games, but would lose the next two before winning their last two games 5-4 in overtime and then 6-2 in the series finale. The final game would end up foreshadowing what was to come in the playoffs, but it wouldn’t stop Ottawa from finishing the year atop the Eastern Conference and 2nd overall in the entire NHL. Surely, if the Sabres managed to survive the first round of the playoffs, their Stanley Cup hopes would soon be spoiled by the Sens in round 2.
Round 1 Quarterfinals vs. Philly: The Sabres faced off against the Philadelphia Flyers in round 1, a series that served to remind Buffalo of how exciting playoff hockey can be. I had my first playoff experience in game six where I got to feel the electric atmosphere that is unparalleled at any other venue. Easily the most memorable moment of the series came in overtime of game 1 when defenseman Brian Campbell labeled the Flyers’ RJ Umberger, a hit that left him lying on his back gasping for air. To this day, when you type “Brian Campbell” into the YouTube search bar, the first suggestion to appear is “Brian Campbell RJ Umberger.” Cambell’s thunderous check brought roaring Buffalo fans to their feet and changed the momentum of the game. Shortly thereafter, the speedy Danny Briere put home the OT winner which would put Buffalo in the driver’s seat for the remainder of the series. The Sabres would comfortably move past Philadelphia by a 4-2 margin.
Umberger seeing stars after Campbell perfectly put his shoulder on his chin
Round 2 Semifinals vs. Ottawa: Given the trouble the Sabres had with Ottawa during the regular season, not many gave them a chance as it appeared to be a David vs. Goliath matchup. Game 1 took place on May 5th, 2006 and remains one of the greatest hockey games I have ever witnessed. The Sabres jumped out to an early 1-0 lead but did not see it again until they won with a final score of 7-6 in overtime. The Sens would establish small leads starting at 2-1 only to have the Sabres quickly tie it up after each goal. With 10.7 seconds remaining in the 3rd, Tim Connolly tied the game at 6 apiece to force overtime after which Drury won it with yet another clutch goal. The game showed the resilience the Sabres had as they were able to continually battle back before finally escaping with a victory. It was no doubt an impressive win, but there remained significant doubt that Buffalo could maintain that pace for a best of 7 series against arguably the best team in the league.
Surprisingly, the Sabres carried the momentum from game 1 into the next 2 and ended up taking a shocking 3-0 lead in the series. Game 5 was host to one of the most remarkable plays in Sabres history. In overtime and while shorthanded, Jason Pominville streaked down the left wing and used his leverage to box out the Ottawa defenseman and slid the puck past Ray Emery to clinch the series for Buffalo. With the Senators’ crowd so beautifully silenced, Hall of Fame announcer, Rick Jeanneret, famously belted out, “NOW DO YOU BELIEVE, NOW DO YOU BELIEVE, THESE GUYS ARE GOOD, SCARY GOOD,” as the rest of the Sabres joyously cleared the bench to dogpile on Pominville. Buffalo had just finished off a team that dominated them throughout the regular season and who was the sure Stanley Cup favorite. Jeanneret’s call perfectly captured what Sabres fans had realized when the puck crossed the goaline, that this team had both the talent and heart to finally bring the city its first championship, a feat that for so long had been merely a dream.
Pominville scoring the “scary good” goal
Round 3 Conference Finals vs. Carolina: The Sabres entered the Eastern Conference finals against the Carolina Hurricanes with a feeling of invincibility after cruising through the first two rounds. However, they would be up against a very talented Hurricanes team with a hot goalie in Cam Ward. The outcome of this series is particularly sour to Sabres fans for two reasons, the first being Carolina’s disinterested fan base. I’ll admit that I may be a little biased towards Buffalo fans, but the RBC Center allegedly wouldn’t sell out the conference finals games until the day of, something that was unheard of among the Sabres faithful. Further adding salt to the wound was the fact that offsides rules would be displayed on Carolina’s jumbotron as a way to teach basic rules to an ignorant crowd which I confirmed the following season when I attended a Sabres ‘Canes game in Raleigh. Hurricanes fans may not be to blame as hockey generally isn’t a part of southern lifestyle, but the presence of cheerleaders, a puzzling mascot named the “Ice Pig,” and the apparent lack of interest resulted in a cheap culture surrounding the team that makes the defeat all the more painful for Sabres fans.
The second reason the Carolina series left such a foul taste in Sabres fans’ mouths was that the misfortune, which seems to always plague Buffalo sports, had finally returned after it eluded the team all year. Defensemen Henrik Tallinder, Teppo Numminen, Jay McKee, and Dmitri Kalinin were all injured for game 7 which required us to call up troops like “Jeff Jillson” and “Doug Janik” from Rochester for the biggest game of the year. Even with a depleted blue line, the Sabres entered the 3rd period on top 2-1 after Jochen Hecht gave the Sabres the lead in the closing seconds of the 2nd. However, Buffalo could not hold on as they gave up 3 goals in the 3rd to veteran Rod Brind’Amour and the rest of the Hurricanes, thereby ending the team’s historic run.
I was only 12 years old at the time, but the ensuing minutes following the loss is forever burned in my mind. Raw emotion took over as I snapped a mini stick and, without looking, threw the remnants which struck a friend who was innocently sitting a few feet away. The reality of the defeat had set in and I was at a loss for words. I had obsessively watched all 82 regular season and 18 playoff games to that point and kept a notepad full of information about each game, something I still possess today and occasionally look at. This was the year when things finally fell our way and Buffalo’s curse was to be lifted. The pain of having the glory stripped away and given to an ungrateful fan base was too much. I remember my older sister called me shortly after time expired as I sobbed into the phone while she did the same on the other end. Some of that sorrow returns to me even now as I dig up this memory. Call it crazy, but that’s the power Buffalo sports has over me.
Rod Brind’Amour scores the game winning goal in the 7th game
The Aftermath: The Hurricanes would eventually win the Cup that year after defeating Edmonton 4-3. That season would be the last year the Sabres wore the black and red as they changed to blue and gold and a logo that many said resembled a slug or Donald Trump’s hair. The next year the Sabres would go on to win the President’s Trophy which is awarded to the team with the best overall record in the regular season. There were few roster changes and the thought was that if they could stay healthy, the Sabres would win the Cup, however, they would again lose in the conference finals, this time at the hands of the revengeful Senators by a 4-1 margin. That year wasn’t without its highlights which included the bench clearing brawl against the Senators and Drury’s game tying goal in game 6 of the Rangers series, a video that to this day still gives me the chills.
Often in the NHL postseason, it’s about the team that gets hot at the right time, not necessarily who has the most talented roster. The Sabres may have had the most talent, but they weren’t hitting their stride at the right time like they had in the previous season. That was the year we should have won the Cup, but misfortune struck yet again. It’s unfortunate the Sabres could not keep the team together and develop a dynasty like the 1990s Redwings and 2000s/2010s Blackhawks and Penguins. Immediately following the President’s Trophy year, the short-lived era was officially marked dead when Buffalo managed to lose both Drury and Briere in the same offseason.
I look at today’s roster and see some promise in the skills of Jack Eichel and a few others, but know we are still lightyears away from having the caliber of a team we had between 2005 and 2007. I hold on to the memory of those thrilling years and think about how unexpected that first playoff run was and compare it to how our Bills are currently performing. Despite all the shortcomings of our teams, there is still a glimmer of hope that somehow lives on. Maybe, just maybe, the city of Buffalo will finally be rewarded for its years of patience.
Let’s go Buff-a-lo.