50 Moments for 50 Years: Part Two

The last 50 49 years of Sabres hockey have been filled with thrilling games, agonizing defeats and a few extremely weird occurrences. In line with some of the work The Buffalo News and The Athletic has done in celebrating the team’s anniversary, I wanted to take a look at some of the most seminal moments in franchise history.

This isn’t a ranking but an attempt to touch on the big benchmarks and memorable moments from the last 50 (49) years. Here is part two of the list:

Crossroads 

The Sabres current home has seen its fair share of name changes. Originally dubbed Crossroad, it opened as Marine Midland Arena in 1996 and is better known as KeyBank Center these days. While it may not be as well loved as The Aud, the arena has played host to some of the greatest moments in franchise history. Four Eastern Conference Finals, a Stanley Cup winning goal*, two NHL Drafts and a laundry list of wonderful on ice moments. Renovations are due some time in the near future which will bring about a new era for the team’s current home. It’s kind of amazing to think that we’re three years away from the building playing host to the Sabres for the same amount of time as The Aud.

Are You Ready Legion of Doom?

Derek Plante christened the new building with the franchise’s first (and only) game seven victory, beating Ron Tugnutt with a slapshot to seal the first round series in OT. The Sabres, playing without Dominik Hasek, were dispatched by the Flyers in round two, but Plante’s goal gave the club their first series victory since 1993 and added another all timer to RJ’s highlight reel.

Hart for Hasek

Hasek became the first goalie in 35 years to be named league MVP after posting 37 wins, a 2.27 GAA and .930 save percentage. It’s wild to think that three years earlier, Hasek put up a 1.95 GAA but finished second in Hart voting to Sergei Fedorov and his 51 goal, 120 point season. He’d also miss out on a third-straight win in 1998-99 despite posting a .937 save percentage and 1.87 GAA, coming third to Alexei Yashin and Jaromir Jagr.

He was the first player to win the award in back-to-back years since some guy named Wayne Gretzky took home eight-straight in the 80s. Seeing Hasek at the peak of his powers was an absolute treat, and the mid-to-late 90s was an astonishing run of play from the goalkeeper. From 1996 through 1999 he posted a goals saved above average of 54. That number is almost unfathomable in any situation you can imagine. Dead puck, super team, it doesn’t matter. To post a GSAA over 50 for three-straight years is astonishing. Tack on the two Hart Trophies, two Pearsons and four Vezinas in a five-year stretch underscores just how utterly dominant he was.

Nagano 1998

The NHL debuted at the Olympics in the middle of Hasek’s run as the world’s best player. So, while the Sabres weren’t really well represented at the 98 games, Hasek’s presence made the men’s tournament a fixture for Sabres fans.

As was the case for most of the 90s, Hasek stole the show. He allowed six goals throughout the entire tournament, including only two in the medal round. The highlight of the Czech Republic’s gold medal effort was the 2-1 shootout win over Canada and a roster which, at the time, represented one of the greatest collections of hockey talent ever assembled.

Hasek stopped all five Canadian shooters to turn the upset and followed that with a 20-save shutout of Russia to secure the gold medal for the Czech’s. Hasek, along with Richard Smehlik came back to Buffalo with gold medals while Alexei Zhitnik won silver with Russia.

1999 Eastern Conference Champions

A year after narrowly missing a berth to the Cup Finals, the Sabres punched their ticket to the franchise’s second Cup Final in 1999.

Buffalo’s path to the Cup included a sweep of second-seeded Ottawa and a six-game triumph over Boston in the second round. The Eastern Conference Final pitted the Sabres against the Leafs in a playoff series for the first time ever. Dwayne Roloson helped the Sabres steal game one while Hasek was on the shelf while the Leafs took game two. But Toronto found Hasek waiting for them in Buffalo for game three and that’s when the series shifted.

Hasek’s return helped spark the Sabres to three-straight wins and a 4-1 series victory. Game three was a come-from-behind, 4-2 effort. While game four featured a goal by Rob Ray that wound up serving as the game winner, adding a little extra salt in the wound as the teams went back to Toronto with the Sabres leading 3-1. Game five was a fairly straightforward affair with the teams trading goals in the second and Erik Rasmussen scoring the series clinching goal about halfway through the third, to push the Sabres through to a showdown with Dallas.

The Shot Heard Round the World

You might have an easier time finding a Sabres playoff overtime winner that doesn’t feature a hallmark goal call from Rick Jeanneret. Jason Woolley’s game one winner in Dallas is no exception as RJ declared it the shot heard round the world as the Sabres took a 1-0 series lead over the Stars. A feat that, at the time, was typically indicative of good things to come.

No Goal

There isn’t much to say about the Stars championship that hasn’t already been said. James Patrick hit the crossbar, the winning goal was in a grey area as far as the crease rule goes, the various comments from Dallas’ players who felt they would have lost a game seven. It was a heartbreaking way for the run to end and combined with John LeClair’s phantom goal and the Music City Miracle, it was a rough few years for Buffalo sports and the rulebook.

No Goal is the lasting memory from the 1999 Cup run but I don’t feel that it’s tarnished the legacy of that team. Maybe it’s because the goal and the controversy around it feel so separate from everything else that led up to the Finals. I’m not sure, but despite the ending, that 1999 team will hold a special place in the hearts of Sabres fans.

The Dominator Departs

The 1999-00 season was rough on the Sabres and they were dispatched in round one against the Flyers. They’d come back the following year and exorcise the demons of the last six years, rolling over Philadelphia in six games and looking like an extremely difficult out as they drew the Penguins in round two.

As an aside, the 8-0 game six clinching victory is still one of the most memorable games from my youth. The Flyers had been a playoff boogeyman for most of the late 90s and to dispatch them in such convincing fashion – just two games after Curtis Brown’s memorable OT winner – was that much sweeter.

The Penguins series was a bit of a roller coaster, with the Sabres digging an 0-2 hole before rattling off three-straight wins. I was in the arena for game five and Stu Barnes’ awesome bar down winner. Pittsburgh would send the series back to Buffalo for a deciding game seven and that’s where Darius Kasparaitis wound up as the unlikely OT hero. It was a fairly harmless shot for Hasek to get beaten on and just a few months later the Dominator would be a Red Wing.

Between Michael Peca’s season-long holdout, Doug Gilmour’s lackluster backcheck and the image of Hasek leaving the net so quickly, the end of the 2001 season (and Hasek’s Sabres career) still leaves a sour taste. It also ushered in the next era for the franchise as they’d struggle to adjust to life without the world’s best player along with some other extenuating circumstances.

Bankruptcy and League Control

The last few years have been difficult to digest given the on-ice results, but I argue no time was darker for the franchise than from 2001 to 2003. The first year post-Hasek was an 82-point letdown and shortly after the year ended, the Rigases were indicted for fraud. That forced the league to step in and take control of the club and setting off a very difficult 2002-03 season.

The NHL would use bankruptcy protection to protect the team from the legal and financial fallout of the Rigas and Adelphia case. Speaking to people who were there at the time, there were weeks they weren’t sure if they’d be seeing a paycheck as the league searched for a new owner. Attendance plummeted as Darcy Regier was handcuffed in terms of making acquisitions and the team was pushed into rebuild mode as they neither had the money to pay larger salaries It was probably a necessary step in a post-Hasek world. But combined with the bankruptcy and arrest of the owners, it led to a very dark period. The failed bid from Mark Hamister and rumors of relocation further clouded the water as things looked bleak through the 2002-03 season, when finally, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

Golisano Steps In

Tom Golisano emerged in the spring of 2003 as an interested buyer for the club. After the Hamister bid had fallen apart, the future of the Sabres in Buffalo looked dismal. But Golisano stepped in with a firm background and was soon announced at the new owner of the Buffalo Sabres.

He quickly won over the fans by sending the team out in their original uniforms for the 2003 home finale. The Sabres would land Thomas Vanek with the fifth overall selection after another difficult regular season and despite his financial restrictions, Regier had set himself up well with prospects and other assets. One player who debuted late in 2003 was a waterbug centerman who saw 14 games at the end of the year named Daniel Briere. That summer would bring Chris Drury into the fold and with ownership stabilized, Regier was able to start building again.

Golisano’s desire to run the team like a business drew ire as the years went on, but he deserves far more credit than he gets for saving hockey in Buffalo. Just as the Knox family is remembered for bringing the Sabres to the Queen City, Golisano should be remembered for keeping them here.

Umberger Hit

Despite what it meant for the league, the 2004 lockout couldn’t have come at a better time for the Sabres. As we all know, the new rules opened up the game and the Sabres were perfectly positioned to take advantage of it. Today, the 2005-06 season is remembered as a shining city on the hill, but the reality is that it took most of the fanbase a few months to come around on the plucky bunch that didn’t boast a lot of household names.

But by the time the playoffs rolled around, the city had bought in. In the first playoff game since Darius Kasparaitis ended Dominik Hasek’s Sabres career, the Sabres created a few new memories for Buffalo’s hockey fans to hang their hats on.

I still remember spending a large portion of a party at school ignoring everyone else as the Sabres and Flyers slugged their way into a second overtime. It was Daniel Briere who provided the heroics but it was Brian Campbell’s devastating hit on RJ Umberger that has become the core memory from that series and the 2005-2007 Sabres teams.

Scary Good

While the Umberger hit will long be a fan favorite, it is Jason Pominville’s shorthanded, OT winner that’s the most iconic event from the 2006 run. The entire Ottawa series was a thrill ride, served it up perfectly with their No Speed Limit cover and it lived up to the hype.

Everything was coming together for the Sabres after the game one barnburner, Ryan Miller’s game two gem and JP Dumont’s OT winner at home in game three. Yet, ever the skeptic, I remember worrying how the series might shift if the Sens scored on their powerplay in OT and made the series 3-2. I only needed to wait 41 seconds as Pominville toasted Daniel Alfredsson and outreached Ray Emery to seal the series and push the Sabres to the Eastern Conference Final.

And like so many big goals before it, this one sounds best narrated by Rick Jeanneret.

Staph Infection

Magical is probably the best way to describe the 2006 run. The year started with a lot of question marks and the region was hockey mad by the end. Even as defensemen dropped like flies, the team kept finding ways to win. So even when Jay McKee was forced to miss game seven in Carolina, at some level it felt like everything would be okay.

Doug Janik scored on bomb from the point and one Jochen Hech goal line special later and the Sabres were 20 minutes from their third Cup final. Yet the lead didn’t hold and we’ve been left with over 10 years of wondering what could have been had McKee not gotten sick or if Rory Fitzpatrick had found the puck in his skates.

Ottawa Brawl

Of the five or six big moments of the post-lockout Sabres, the brawl with Ottawa is among everyone’s favorite. While maybe not a flashpoint – the team had already captured the attention of the fanbase and league – it will to live on in Sabres lore forever. How could it not? A line brawl featuring the Sabres fourth line jumping Ottawa’s stars, a goalie fight, the coaches nearly coming to blows and it all culminating in a 6-5 shootout win. That won’t be easy to forget. That it came against one of the biggest rivals in the middle of one of the most magical runs in franchise history adds to the mystique.

2007 Presidents Trophy 

It’s unfortunate that the President’s Trophy gets the aura of always a bridesmaid, never the bride, because winning the regular season is no small feat. Capping 2006-07 as the league’s best team wasn’t just a nice payoff for the two-year stretch the team had enjoyed, but felt like a sign of bigger things to come that spring. The end of that playoff run, followed by the events of that summer have left a sour taste in the fans’ mouths, but we should give credit to the utter dominance that team imposed throughout the 2006-07 season.

Who Else?

I think it’s fair to say the 2006 run was more magical than 2007 but I’d still take this goal over all the others scored between the two, even though this isn’t even a game winner. There’s something about the roar of the crowd before the horn hits, the scramble on the play and that Drury sneaks around the net after centering for Tim Connolly on the play. Maybe it was just the overall tension of the fanbase waiting to explode in celebrating what had been such a dominant team. Either, way, it’s my favorite goal from that era.

Note the difference in crowd levels between the MSG feed (here) and the Versus feed (here) and how it affects the pop in the building just before the horn. And also my favorite version of this goal, shot by some hero in section 106 where you can see the crescendo of fans rise out from behind the net.

7/1/07

You’d think that after 12 years we’d be over not managing to re-sign at least one of the team’s co-captains and best players. Yet, here we are.

There’s no need to re-hash all the details of losing both Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, but that day was a particularly dark one in franchise annals. They chased losing those two for quite a while and they might still be chasing them. Failing to retain either player also cast a dark shadow over Tom Golisano’s tenure which only grew darker as Brain Campbell was dealt and most moves were money-in, money-out transactions. Accusations that he was unwilling to spend have lingered long past his ownership ended and it all started on 7/1/07.

The Winter Classic

For a region that doesn’t often get to brag about being first with anything (I mean, we just got a Chik Fil A), to host the first Winter Classic was special.

Looking back on the pre-Twitter days when iPhones were still brand new, there was a lot more hearsay about the event being planned than you see these days. Photos on message boards of rink layouts at the Ralph and whispers that an “Ice Bowl” was being planned were all we had to go on.

Of course, once it was all set up it was nothing but a party. All the boxes were checked for the game itself. The snow globe effect, packed stadium, everything about the 2008 Winter Classic was unforgettable. Especially as the event has maybe outgrown returning to a venue like New Era Field, it’s great to look back at how cool that day was. Except for the people who still call it the Ice Bowl. I hate that, stop it.

Flight 3047

It’s not easy to put into words everything that surrounded the game after the crash of Flight 3407. I was working for the team at the time and saying that that game felt different is such an understatement regarding the impact the crash had on the region. Mike Harrington revisited that day in an article in Februrary of this year and of the many quotes that capture just how much that game meant, Derek Roy’s still stands out.

“You’re from here, too. You know,” Roy said. “There was no way we were not going to tie this game and win it for these people. No way.”

2010 Olympics

The one benefit of the 2010 games was the easy access to the men’s and women’s hockey tournament for the North American television audience. With Ryan Miller poised to start in goal for the Americans – and as the only Sabre playing a truly prominent role – the eyes of Sabres nation were on Vancouver.

Miller put forth a sterling performance for the Americans throughout the tournament. He held strong early as the team found their footing offensively and stonewalled the Canadians in their preliminary round showdown. That win helped lock up the group for the US and paved the way to the gold medal game. Those two US-Canada games are still two of the best hockey games I’ve ever attended and he was a central figure in the US staying alive in each. Miller won tournament MVP in a losing effort and received a hero’s welcome upon his return to NHL action.

The ovation he received in Pittsburgh, the first game back from the Olympics, was astonishing and praise was heaped upon him in Buffalo for the remainder of the season. He snagged the Vezina that season on the heels of a magical Olympic tournament. Unfortunately the Sabres were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by Boston.

Miller/Lucic

Depending on your view of events, the Sabres are either still chasing the results of 7/1/07 or the fallout of the Lucic hit on Miller. In the grand scheme of things, it was a relatively minor incident despite the lack of response. Miller would have to miss a fair amount of time, but it didn’t keep the team from the playoffs like his high ankle sprain did in 2009, and it wasn’t as if the lack of response to that hit was the reason they dropped games six and seven to the Flyers in the playoffs.

Yet, the lack of response was a major flashpoint in Western New York. The next time the teams met was in Buffalo a short while later and the building was buzzing about when someone would fight Lucic. That was a fight filled game that had fans in the building happy that the team stepped up. Naturally, they lost the game in a shootout, so I’m sure the Bruins were laughing all the way to the bank for getting Buffalo off their game enough to grab two points.

That summer, Darcy Regier traded Derek Roy for Steve Ott (a trade I welcomed for what it’s worth) and signed John Scott on the same day. Two moves specifically tailored to make the Sabres tougher to play against. Then, at the 2013 draft, Regier is on tape with Kevin Devine discussing who to pick with the  16th selection and Devine specifically notes that Nikita Zadorov will make the Sabres harder to play against. Well, they did a whole lot of work trading skill for toughness and just a few months after selecting Zadorov, the Sabres truly set forth on their mission to tank out and build through the top of the draft. You’ll remember that it was the spring of 2013 when Regier first noted there would be suffering.

Ultimately, the decision to reshape the team in the wake of Miller getting run put in motion the events that brought the Sabres to the top of the draft and the last number of difficult years on the ice.

Pegulaville

It wasn’t long after the Lucic/Miller hit when rumors began to circle the Sabres were about to be purchased. The news came fast and furious as the winter rolled on and on February 18, 2011, Terry Pegula became the fourth owner in franchsie history.

He came in hailed as a super fan and we’ll all remember him shedding a tear at the sight of Gilbert Perreault at his introductory news conference. Fans were rightfully excited at the prospect of this new, deep pocketed owner taking control. The last few years under Tom Golisano had been frustrating. The loss of Drury and Briere was still very fresh in everyone’s minds and the apparent requirement for every deal to be a flat cap expenditure often limited the team’s options on the trade market. And rarely was the team a player for UFAs, though hat may have been a good thing in hindsight. Pegula’s arrival brought hope all of that would change, and it did.

That summer brought about big contracts for Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino and most of us still remember Pegula personally going to meet Robyn Regehr to convince him to waive his no trade clause.

Things haven’t been quite as rosy recently, as the team has endured continued struggles on the ice, changing the narrative from February 2011 quite a bit.

Moustaches for Martin

Rick Martin’s sudden passing sent a shockwave through Sabres nation as the fans had just seen him together with his French Connection linemates a few weeks prior. The Sabres honored Martin as the 2011 season wound down as the team seemed to enjoy a spark in the wake of Pegula’s purchase.

The Sabres’ home finale came just a few weeks past Martin’s passing and depending on results around the league, taking Philadelphia to overtime would clinch Buffalo’s berth in the postseason. It had been a thrilling run to reach a point where the team could control their own destiny and the game against the Flyers on April 8 packed almost all the drama of that run into 62 minutes of action.

Ryan Miller was just coming back from the concussion he suffered from the Lucic hit and Jhonas Enroth had been vital in keeping the team’s playoff hopes alive. But after allowing two goals in just under a minute in the second period, Enroth was pulled as the Sabres season was on the line, trailing 3-2 entering the third. Nathan Gerbe would score an incredible spin-o-rama goal to tie the game and the Flyers were all too happy to play for the tie, which clinched Buffalo’s playoff berth. Thomas Vanek put a cherry on top of the sundae with an impressive goal of his own to cap an incredibly memorable night with a win.

The Tank

Perhaps the most divisive Buffalo sports topic ever, after two years of regression following the 2011 playoff berth, Darcy Regier made the decision to begin stripping down his core and rebuilding the roster and pipeline. With the success of teams like the Penguins, Capitals and others who had drafted high in previous years, the plan was to sell off valuable assets, acquire additional draft capital and restock the club with high-value picks which would help form the new core.

On the surface the plan made sense. Given the results the team had been getting in recent years relative to their peers, it was the right call. After all, the post-2007 core was getting to the point on the aging curve where they were going to begin regressing. But Regier wouldn’t get to see out his plan, getting fired in the fall of 2013 and being replaced by Tim Murray after Pat LaFontaine was hired as the team’s President of Hockey Operations.

We all know how the LaFontaine experiment went and Murray’s tenure with the team was, well, contentious. He completed what Regier had set out to do and he gave a master class in executing the tank. As the losses piled up and the exploits of Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid piled up, the fan base became invigorated at the prospect of what might come down the road. Not everyone was on board and as the 2014-15 season dragged along, the debate over the moral standard and effectiveness of the Sabres efforts were hotly contested. Ultimately, the plan worked. The Sabres locked up the top lottery spot in both 2014 and 2015, guaranteeing themselves one of the top two picks with which to build around. But getting there was a chore.

The McDavid Lottery

Two years of suffering , Twitter fighting and rooting against the Sabres led to one night and a 20% chance that Connor McDavid would ship up the 90 and wear blue and gold for his entire career. As luck would have it, McDavid wound up in Edmonton and the Sabres were slotted to take Jack Eichel.

The schadenfreude levied from those against Buffalo’s efforts to tank could have stopped the Niagara though in truth. That lottery was the culmination of a lot of bickering, anger and plain old miserable hockey. That it didn’t work as many had hoped was frustrating. That it was the Oilers winning the lottery once again was comical. And that finishing last had at least secured the Sabres one hell of a consolation prize was a relief.

Dahlin Lotto

There was a bit of poetic justice delivered in 2018 when the Sabres somehow managed to finish dead last again despite bringing in a new GM and starting the 2017-18 season with 10 new players. The lottery balls fell just right and the Sabres were gifted with the opportunity to draft a talisman of a defenseman with the first overall pick. He turned in a Calder caliber campaign as a rookie and has the look of a franchise corner stone to work in tandem with the other guys they threw away entire seasons for.

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