The 2005-06 season saw the NHL return after losing a year to a lockout. It was also the first time good hockey was played in Buffalo since 2001. After scoring 110 points in the regular season, the Sabres sparked cautious enthusiasm in Buffalo, people weren't expecting Stanley Cup, but we knew the team had it in them.
It wouldn't be Sabres Playoffs however without a visit from Philadelphia, where the tone for the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals was set by Brian Campbell:
Before he was Daniel Briere, playoff legend, the diminutive forward was just an unlikely hero, winning game 1 of the series in overtime. The Sabres routed the Flyers in game 2 with an 8-2 win with hat tricks by both J.P. (Jason Pominville) and J.P. Dumont. The Sabres lost both games in Philly, but won game five at home, and returned to Philadelphia with the chance to win the series. Just as in 2001, the Sabres eliminated the Flyers in game 6 with extreme prejudice, a 7-1 win.
While the Sabres stormed past Philadelphia, most fans expected a hard fought series against Ottawa, but I know I thought the Sabres would lose. Ottawa won 5 of 8 meetings in the regular season and seemed to have Buffalo's number.
Somehow, Buffalo found themselves up three games to none, winning each game by one goal, twice in overtime. When game five went to overtime, you had to like our chances. At the time, I was a UB student, working for UB Football, HSBC Bank and delivering Pizzas for Pizza Hut. On the night of game 5, I was delivering pizzas but my shift ended just as overtime started, not wanting to risk driving home and missing the action, I rode along as my friend ran his deliveries. Our confidence waned as a Buffalo penalty would give Ottawa a power play chance to win the game.
Ottawa sent four forwards out to give the Senators their best chance at winning the game right then, but that very move made it possible for Buffalo to win the series. Jason Pominville exploded past the fourth forward, Daniel Alfredsson, and tucked a goal past the tender, eliminating the Senators. I listened to one of the greatest hockey call of all time, in half shock that we bested the mighty Senators. As we drove down the streets of Kenmore, kids ran out of their houses to celebrate on the streets.
The buzz created by that win was unlike anything I had ever experienced in Hockey before. Marquees all over the city changed from their default message to "Lets Go Sabres." I think the buzz for the 2006 Eastern Conference Final surpassed that of the 1999 Stanley Cup Final. It approached the feeling we had during the Super Bowl runs of the early 90's.
Through their first eleven games, the Sabres lost 13 man games from their original playoff lineup: Teppo Numminen left for 1 game with an irregular heartbeat, Jochen Hecht missed 3 games with an upper body injury, Thomas Vanek was a healthy scratch for 3 games. In game two of the Ottawa series, both Dmitri Kalinin and Tim Connolly were injured, each missing the final 3 games of the Ottawa series and neither returned for the Conference Finals.
In the Carolina series, Teppo Numminen would miss five games, Vanek would be scratched for five games, Tallinder would miss four games, and Jay McKee would miss game 7. In total, the Sabres lost 29 man games, meaning 23% of the players on the ice for the Carolina series were backups.
The Sabres faced elimination for the first time in game six at HSBC arena. The Sabres improved to 6-2 at home during the playoffs thanks to Danny Briere, playoff legend.
Game seven in Carolina meant the Hurricanes would get last line change, controlling the matchups. This was important with McKee and Numminen out, the Sabres would play game seven with four backup defensemen: Jeff Jillson, Nathan Paetsch, Doug Janik and Rory Fitzpatrick.
Brian Campbell and Toni Lydman would make up the first pairing, on ice for 27 and 25 minutes of game 7 respectively.
The second pairing was Janik and Fitzpatrick who logged 18 and 17 minutes, while Paetsch and Jilson notched twelve minutes of ice time.
The first goal was scored by Mike Commodore with Doug Janik and Rory Fiztpatrick on the ice. It went in off Adam Mair, who played for the injured Tim Connolly. Ottawa basically scored that goal.
However, Janik got the goal back, sniping a shot in from the point for the first Buffalo goal of the game.
Then late in the second period Jochen Hecht scored a Jochen Hecht Goal™. Late goals are usually killers, as they deflate a team right before intermission and that team can often come out flat for the next period as a result. This did not happen.
I was at a bar in downtown Buffalo, 18 days past my twenty-first birthday, full of thousands of fans in their sweaters, drinking their Labatt Blues, nervously ready to explode for a Stanley Cup party. After the Hecht goal, the bar went wild. The bar played music during the intermission, one song in particular was popular in the crowd and I can never hear the song without thinking of this game 7 heartbreak.
The crowd screamed: "Woahhh we're half way there! Woahhohh Livin' on a prayer." Beer was spilled high fives were exchanged, and Bon Jovi's Livin' On A Prayer was the best song ever made.
But it wouldn't last.
Rory Fitzpatrick and Janik again were victimized, as Doug Weight tied the game early in the third period. Then with nine minutes to go, Buffalo's best defenseman committed a delay of game penalty, meaning Buffalo would only have 1 regular defensemen available for two minutes. Carolina converted on the powerplay to take the lead for good.
A shot was stopped by Ryan Miller and kicked out to his defenseman, Rory Fitzpatrick (AGAIN), who couldn't find it in his skates, for a period of time that seemed like forever, until Rod Brind'Amour the hated Flyer of old, scored the game winning goal.
Carolina went on to win the Stanley Cup in seven games over Edmonton. Tjhere isn't a Buffalo fan alive who doesn't think a healthy Sabres team fails to win the 2006 Stanley Cup. Even if we just had Jay McKee, we probably still would have won. But that is why Lord Stanley's Cup is the hardest Trophy to win in all of sports. You need health, toughness, grit, skill and luck. Buffalo didn't have the health and ran out of luck.
It's very rare when the winning team of a series ends up hating the losing team more. After the Carolina series, Buffalo became one of Carolina's biggest rivals; the Buffalo fans in attendance for better or worse made Carolina hate them. But then again the 1999 ECF against Toronto was one of the best moments for me as a Sabres fan, and I have a friend from Toronto who forgot that even happened.
The loss in 2006 playoffs were a bad moment for Buffalo, but was it worse than UB's loss to Ohio in the 2005 MAC championship? Vote below.
Up Next: UB takes its ball and goes home.