In the weeks leading up to the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, I’ll be taking a different approach to this series. There are four weeks before the big dance, there are four rounds of the NHL playoffs, and the Sabres played in three of those four in 2006. So every week until the start of this year’s postseason I will be highlighting the 2006 playoff run, perhaps the most thrilling and memorable eighteen games the Buffalo Sabres have ever played in. This week we begin where the Sabres did, against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal.
For most of the early 2000s the Buffalo Sabres were a franchise in purgatory. Owner John Rigas, owner of Adelphia Communications, had been forced to give up ownership of the team after being accused of fraud, thus sending the team into ownership by the league itself. Buffalo had faced potential relocation and even ran the possibility of folding, a complete rarity in major professional sports. Perhaps the all-time low in Sabres history was in 2002 when Buffalo’s departure from the league seemed inevitable. League commissioner Gary Bettman had told the Associated Press
“There’s no question the franchise will complete the season. What happens beyond that will depend on if we can complete the sale,”. This was a rather bleak outlook from the often stoic Bettman who even to this day refuses to acknowledge a franchise’s struggles. Attendance tumbled to only around 12,000 fans per game and the team had sold out only one home game in the 2002 season. The Sabres were in need of a hero, and it came in the form of Western New York billionaire Tom Golisano. Golisano was introduced as the Sabres new owner on March 19th, 2003, beginning a new era that focused on the on ice future of the team.
The Sabres would acquire Daniel Briere in 2003, followed by the acquisition of Chris Drury in 2004. These were good pickups, but two players were not enough to convince the media or fans that these Sabres were going to be scary good. The Sabres had even been chosen by some to finish at the bottom of the league’s figurative barrel.The Sabres would soon dispel these theories. Along with the emergence of rookies Tomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and Ryan Miller, the Sabres shocked many in the season following the NHL lockout of 2005. A solid defense corp led by veteran Finn Teppo Numminen and Jay McKee helped the Sabres finish in the top 10 of the league for goals against. Buffalo fielded one of the youngest teams in the league in 2005-06. Other rookies such as Drew Stafford, Daniel Paille and future captain Paul Gaustad contributed to the Sabres success. Buffalo would begin the season nearly proving the critics correct, falling to 7-8-0 after the first month of play. The Sabres quickly righted the ship however and would go on a 45-16-6 run to finish with 52 wins and a combined 30 losses. The Cinderella Sabres had defied all expectations en route to a 4th place finish in the Eastern Conference, accumulating 110 points and garnering their first 100 point season since 1983-84.
Buffalo’s 110 points were still only good enough for 2nd place in the Northeast Division, placing behind the powerhouse Ottawa Senators. In their first playoff appearance since 2001, Buffalo would welcome a familiar foe from Philadelphia into the HSBC Arena, the 5th seed Flyers. Led by Simon Gagne and Peter Forsberg, the Flyers were a team on its last legs of playoff success. This season would mark the end of an era for the Flyers that was started with the likes of Eric Lindros and John LeClair. The Sabres were content to show the old dogs that there was a new wave of younger and faster teams ready to thrive in the “new” NHL.
Game 1 was the first home playoff game for the Sabres since May 10th, 2001. The city was on fire once more for the team that seemed destined for extinction a few years prior. Buffalo’s first goal of the postseason would come via Tim Connolly who beat Esche at 5:20 of the first period. Buffalo would add another goal in the 2nd, this time from defenseman Jay McKee. Philly would answer with a goal of their own sixteen and a half minutes into the 2nd with a goal from Mike Knuble. A tying goal from the Flyers with two minutes remaining in the 3rd sent the game to one of the most memorable overtime period(s) in team history. In the first overtime, Brian Campbell sized up Philly forward RJ Umberger at the Flyers blue line. Umberger had his head down and misplayed a head pass, leading to Campbell obliterating the former #16 overall pick. Combined with the response from the faithful in the crowd and Rick Jeanneret’s call of “Ooh what a hit by Campbell!”, it was a spine tingling moment in Sabres history. It would take two overtimes before Daniel Briere scored on a delayed penalty, putting the Sabres up 1-0 in the series.
Game 2 saw the Sabres dismantle the Flyers by a score of 8-2. J.P. Dumont contributed two of five Sabres goals in the 1st period. An infuriated Robert Esche took his frustrations out by attacking Derek Roy with 4 minutes remaining in the 1st period. This would do anything for the Flyers, who were well on their way to being steamrolled over the next 40 minutes.
The Flyers would rebound in games 3 and 4, defeating Buffalo 4-2 and 5-4, respectively. It was hard not to think that maybe the Sabres season had finally run its course. After all, its only fair for Buffalo sports fans to expect the worse after all that we have experienced. But come game 5, Buffalo would restore hope for the season.
Buffalo responded in Game 5 with a 24 save shutout by Ryan Miller, 3-0. For the 1st time since 2001, Buffalo would have an opportunity to close out a series and advance in the playoffs. Buffalo would do just that, frying the Flyers 7-1 at the Wachovia Center. Buffalo had secured their first series victory since 2001, also against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The city of Buffalo had experienced its first taste of playoff success since 5 years prior. Spirits were as high as ever, but looming over the Sabres celebration was the greatest challenge they would face all season. Next up would be the Ottawa Senators, Northeast Divison champions and nemesis of the Buffalo Sabres. Would Buffalo overcome the threat of the Evil Empire, or would Chris Drury and Co. have other plans? Find out next week.
Tweet us your memories of the series! @SabresFanatics @LetsGoBills716
All information used is from hockeyreference.com
All photos used are from YouTube and The Buffalo News.