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Worst Buffalo Sports Moments #11 - The Hardest Working Teams' Last Stand

The "hardest working" era of the Buffalo Sabres between 1995 and 2001 made the playoffs four consecutive years, played in ten playoff series, winning six. The Sabres played in two Eastern Conference Finals and one Stanley Cup Final.

2000-2001 was one of the best seasons in Sabres history. The Sabres made their fifth consecutive playoff run and behind Dominik Hasek, had a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. However before the season started, there was evidence that this would be the last run of the Hardest Working Team In Hockey, as the Sabres ownership showed they didn't value hard work as much as the fans did.

Best Sabres Regular Seasons
Year Points Max Points Points Earned Result Against
74-75 113 160 70.6% lost Stanley cup Flyers
75-76 105 160 65.6% lost 2nd round Islanders
76-77 104 160 65.0% lost 2nd round Islanders
77-78 105 160 65.6% lost 2nd round Flyers
79-80 110 160 68.8% lost 3rd round Islanders
80-81 99 160 61.9% lost 2nd round North Stars
83-84 103 160 64.4% lost 1st round Nordiques
89-90 98 160 61.3% lost 1st round Canadiens
00-01 98 164 59.8% lost 2nd round Penguins
05-06 110 164 67.1% lost 3rd round Hurricanes
06-07 113 164 68.9% lost 3rd round Senators
09-10 100 164 61.0% lost 1st round Bruins
10-11 96 164 58.5% lost 1st round Flyers

Buffalo's captain and the 1997 Selke Trophy winner, Michael Peca, had been leading the Sabres while collecting a modest 1.65 million dollar salary. He was a restricted agent in 2000, and Peca wanted a 4 year deal worth 16 million dollars. The Sabres offered four years 10 million.

Peca was right. They should have paid him 3.5 million.

Peca followed the lead of Alexei Yashin, Eric Lindros and Keith Primeau, sticking to his guns, missing training camp and regular season games hoping Buffalo would meet his contract demands. Unfortunately for Peca, his leverage crumbled as the Sabres started the season 10-4-2-1 (wins, losses, ties, OT loss), good enough for first place in the Eastern Conference without their captain. Peca softened his salary demand from four years 16 million to 4 years 14 million, the Sabres countered with 3 years 7.95 million. Insulted, Peca demanded a trade.

Performance by Young Centers between 1996-2000
Player Team 2000-01 Salary Age Goals Pts +/- Awards
Jozef Stumpel LAK $2,200,000 28 72 247 0
Alexei Yashin (1996-1999) OTT $3,600,000 27 112 241 15
Jason Allison BOS $3,500,000 25 74 221 37
Micahel Peca BUF n/a 26 85 186 51 Selke 1997
Saku Koivu MTL $3,300,000 26 48 178 15 1997 All star
Jason Arnott NJD $2,500,000 26 56 144 -35 1997 All Star
Rob Niedermayer FLA $2,100,000 26 50 137 -23 n/a

The Sabres rolled on until hitting a rough 5-8-2 patch to start the new year. They decided it was time to bring back a fan favorite. That favorite was Donald Audette, not Peca. Audette was acquired at the trade deadline but Peca was neither signed nor traded at the deadline meaning Peca would miss the entire season, and the Sabres would head into the playoffs without their spiritual leader.

At 15 years old, I was mad at Peca, I was mad at Peca until writing this article. At 15, I suffered through 4 Super Bowl losses, the Flutie fumble, the no goal and the homerun throwback. When 2000-01 proved to be a special year, we wanted Peca back to put Buffalo over the top, everyone but Peca who selfishly wanted his money. But knowing now what we know about the Rigas family and looking at the chart above, Darcy and/or John Rigas were wrong. Peca was right. They should have given him the 4 year 14 million deal.

The Flyers, Again

The Sabres faced the Flyers in the playoffs in 1995, 1997, 1998, 2000 and now they were the first round opponent in 2001. The Sabres had only defeated the Flyers once in that span, in 1998. In addition, during the 2000-01 season, the Flyers were 4-0 against the Sabres winning their games by a combined score of 10-2.

It was a close series, but the Sabres in classic "Hardest Working Team" fashion found a way to grind out three 1-goal victories before hosting game six in Buffalo up three games to two. The Sabres scored 2 minutes and 23 seconds into the game and then the floodgates opened, they scored not one, not two, not three, but eight goals for an 8-0 series clinching win.

Every top seed except the #1 seed New Jersey, won in the Eastern Conference. Buffalo originally the fifth seed was now the second best team in the east, hosting Pittsburgh the six seed while New Jersey entertained the seventh seeded Leafs. In the season of the goalie, Patrick Roy and Colorado looked destined to win the West and Marty Brodeur and the Devils would easily defeat Toronto. Fortunately, Buffalo had won the only matchup of the season against Colorado, winning in Denver and they had swept the season series with the Devils, outscoring them 15-3. The only thing in the way of that favorable future was the pesky Pittsburgh Penguins. Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemeuix were 3-1 against the Sabres during the season, and hope was all but lost when the Penguins stole both games 1 and 2 in Buffalo.

You Gotta Be Kidding Me

The phrase that would dominate the next 5 games of hockey. After being outscored 6-1 in two losses at home, Buffalo turned the tables, outscoring the Pens 9-3 in games 3 and 4 to even the series. Game five went to overtime with a feeling that whoever scored next would win the series.

Stu Barnes' OT winner had Buffalo thinking championship, but it would actually be the final win in Dominik Hasek's career as a Buffalo Sabre.

[Peca] is the most difficult forward to play against in the league. -Jaromir Jagr

In game 6, the Sabres led 2-1 late in the third period. As the Penguins tried to tie the game, a weak shot from the point was deflected high into the air, dropping to a dead stop in the crease in front of Hasek. Bad luck found more bad luck as Mario Lemieux was standing there in perfect position to hammer home the series saving goal. With the wind knocked out of their sails, Pittsburgh dominated overtime and Marty Straka scored to send the series to game 7 in Buffalo.

In game 7, tied at zero going into the third, the Sabres twice took a lead but both times Pittsburgh countered leaving the game tied at 2. it seemed time was on the Sabres side, as Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr were double shifted, and by the end of the period they struggled to stay on the ice. Stall tactics reached soccer levels until with 90 seconds remaining Darius Kasparaitis performed one of the most unsportsmanlike acts i've ever seen in a game. With a minute remaining, the tired Penguins were reeling in their own end against Buffalo's top line. Miroslav Satan, Doug Gilmour and Alexi Zhitnik fought to win the series before overtime. Satan played the puck towards the net, but it was blocked and deflected in the air to Kaparaitis. The Penguins defenseman caught the puck, and threw it out of play. An obvious penalty to the 20,000 fans in the HSBC Arena and the millions of fans watching on TV. But not to the referee standing a few feet away from the play. The Penguins got a fresh line on, killed off the rest of the period, and got 15 minutes of much needed rest as game seven headed to overtime.

The game went to overtime and because it's Buffalo, Darius Kasparaitis scored the series winning goal. The goal wasn't impressive, it was a weak wrist shot. He celebrated like a talentless hack who had never scored before, but that was because he was a talentless hack who had never scored before. Hasek strolled off the ice like it was the 1st intermission of a game in November. His last time on the ice as a Sabre. I'll never forgive Hasek for his sloppy goal and the fact that he seemingly didn't care. He left the Sabres to chase cups and I hate that the Sabres invited him back to honor him, let Detroit honor him, he's not MY goalie.

The Devils and the Avalanche would play an epic seven game series eventually won by Colorado. For the fourth consecutive year, the final Sabres home game of the year went to overtime. Fitting for the hardest working team of the year to put extra time in. Sadly, they only won one of those games, and none of those series: Losing at home to Washington in the 98 ECF in OT, losing at home to Dallas in the 99 SCF in 3OT, defeating Philly at home in OT of game 4 of the 1st round, only to lose the deciding game 5 in Philly and this OT loss at home in game 7 against Pittsburgh. After the loss, the Sabres would trade their cornerstones, captain Mike Peca to the NY Islanders, where he signed a 5 year 20 million dollar deal, and all world goalie Dominik Hasek to the Detroit Red Wings.

Me at 16, finally old enough to drive myself down to HSBC to take in Sabres action live, saw a promising cup run disappear via our best skater's holdout, a freak deflection, an uncalled delay of game penalty and a goal that had no business being scored by a guy who had no business even taking the shot. I would go to many games but I wouldn't see the hard work, the raucous crowds or the playoffs (NFL or NHL) again until I would be old enough to drink.

This is the team that made you lose faith in it all. The captain that embodied your team. The ownership's dedication to winning. The feeling of Destiny. The goalie who always was there to bail the team out. And the Buffalo fan. After this year, the 16 year old in me loved sneaking up to the front row after buying 15 dollar tickets, but it was a rough time. The owner in jail, the fans at home instead of in the stands, cries of "We Want the Cup" were replaced by desperate pleas of "It's our team, lets keep it that way."

This could be the story of how Buffalo lost for good, but fortunately, when we least expected it, the kids who I watched lose a lot of games, got good. Scary good. Gone were the days of sneaking to the front row, gone were the days of me being able to afford tickets. But the spirit returned. Despite the loss in 2001, we learned the Buffalo Sabres spirit won't die. We will hate Toronto, we will hate Ottawa, we will hate Boston, we will hate Philadelphia, we will hate Pittsburgh, we will hate Kasparaitis, we despise that Washington Capitals fast siren, and we will get one someday, just one, hopefully before I die.

I really really hate Kasparaitis, I dislike Crosby (Sidney be whining), but if I had to name my most hated Penguin it would be Kasparaitis by a country mile. Also after writing this and being forced to spell his name correctly as Kasparaitis and not the more natural Kasparitis, I hate him even more. But I also hate the Dolphins, and now Conrad's crushing playoff loses as a teenager face off. Pittsburgh 2001 vs Miami 1999. If you were one of those people in the 90's who were Penguins fans but also rooted for Miami because Marino went to Pitt you were the worst.

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