Watch the play here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RORm0nGFeUA
The year 1997 was a brand new beginning for the Buffalo Sabres. The franchise was entering its 27th season, and the new year didn’t come without radical changes for the club. The team unveiled new uniforms and completely overhauled the brand’s identity, adopting red, black and white as the team’s color scheme. This was the first major uniform change since the franchise’s inception, and to say it was a far cry from the Blue and Gold donned by the French Connection and other greats would be an understatement. Coinciding with the identity overhaul was the opening of the franchise’s new arena, just next door to the beloved Memorial Auditorium sat the newly christened Marine Midland Arena. Playing in the new facility wouldn’t come without its challenges, however. On November 16th, 1996 the Sabres $4 million Jumbotron came crashing to the ice hours before a game against Northeast division foe Boston. 2nd year head coach Ted Nolan helmed a rugged team that earned the nickname “The Hardest Working Team In Hockey” due to their tenaciousness despite lacking a true offensive superstar. One key contributor to the ‘97 squad was Derek Plante. Pacing the team with 53 points, the center contributed 27 goals, 2nd only to Donald Audette in that department. Playing a full 82 game schedule, it was players like Derek that embodied the defining characteristic of this team; an undying work ethic and will to succeed. The team grinded to their first ever Northeast division championship and pushed to the 2nd seed of the Eastern conference. They were set for a first round matchup with the Ottawa Senators, who just a few days prior defeated the Sabres 1-0 to clinch their first post-season berth in the franchise’s short 5 year existence. The battle lines had been drawn, and with April flowers bloomed one of the NHL’s most intense rivalries of the next decade.
The Sabres first playoff appearance in two years came with an expectation of easy entry to the 2nd round. Ottawa had finished with only 77 points in the regular season, a total that in today’s NHL would be unheard of for a playoff team. The Sabres came into the series heavy favorites over the Senators, a franchise that had never felt the emotion of a game 7 or rigor of the NHL postseason. The Hardest Working Team in Hockey was also in for an even tougher test as the real season began. Game 1 went to the Buffalo Sabres by a score of 3-1. The teams then swapped wins in Games 2, 3 and 4, deadlocking the series at 2 wins apiece. On April 25th in Game 5, Ottawa gained a 3-2 stranglehold on the series with a 4-1 victory on the road. Buffalo’s backs were against the wall in Game 6 in Canada’s capital, but Nolan’s gang once more found a way to battle back and force a Game 7 back in Western New York, setting the stage for Derek Plante’s overtime heroics, and one memorable call from Rick Jeanneret.
Without Dominik Hasek in goal for more than half of the series, the scales had tilted in the Senators favor. Steve Shields had held the fort admirably, but there was never any guarantees without the Sabres greatest goaltender in team history back stopping the club. The two teams battled to a 2-2 tie after 60 minutes, setting up a true sudden death moment in which one team’s season would end with one goal. The door was open for Plante to create one of the most memorable moments in Buffalo Sabres history. 5:24 into the first Overtime period, Derek Plante cannoned a slap shot from just past the blue line at Sens goaltender Ron Tugnutt who was left helpless watching the puck slither past the goal line.
The Sabres would go on to the 2nd round to face the powerhouse Philadelphia Flyers who were led by their Legion Of Doom line. The Sabres, though the higher seed, proved no match as the eventual Eastern Conference champion Flyers ousted the Sabres in 5 games. This taste of success in the clutch would follow the Sabres into the playoffs the next 4 years, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 1999 (more on that one at a later date). Plante would play another season and a half in the red, black and white before being traded to Dallas in the 1998-99 season. This season would also mark the end of Pat LaFontaine’s tenure as a Buffalo Sabre, a career that earned him a banner above the KeyBank Center. Goaltender Dominik Hasek had the greatest offseason of any Sabre player ever, collecting his 1st Hart Memorial Trophy for league MVP, as well as the Lester B. Pearson and Vezina for best goaltender. The recognition of Hasek’s dominance leaves questions of what the Sabres would have done had he been available against the Flyers. Hasek wasn’t the only Sabre to walk away from 1997 with hardware however, as future captain Michael Peca would win the Selke. Coach Ted Nolan would be unexpectedly relieved from his duties despite winning the Jack Adams trophy for Coach of the Year.
Hasek, Peca and Nolan all won awards in the offseason
Thank you for reading the first edition of Sabres moment retrospect. We hope it took you on a nostalgia trip. Check back every week for a new moment and send feedback to @SabresFanatics on Twitter.