Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Game Seven

A brief story seems relevant as the Buffalo Sabres pack out their possessions from their lockers after losing Game Seven to the Philadelphia Flyers:

Way back in 1993, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings were headed for Game Seven of the NHL Conference Finals. It had been a back-and-forth series until that point. But the Leafs were at home, and hadn't been to the Stanley Cup Finals in years and years.

Waiting, as it turned out, were the Montreal Canadiens. A Montreal-Toronto matchup for the Cup, something that was eliminated as a possibility because of realignment of the divisions, was at least possible.

You may remember how it came out. Wayne Gretzky had one of the great games of his life for the Kings, scoring five points and almost single-handedly beating the Maple Leafs.

Steve Dryden, my old friend from his days with the Hockey News, and I were talking about that contest a few years after that fact. Yes, I said, Gretzky was great and all that. But when you (meaning the Leafs) are in a situation like that, "You have to win that game!"

The Sabres know a little bit about that.

They had a three games to two lead over the Philadelphia Flyers in the first-round series. Game Six was in their own building. If that weren't enough, the Flyers' coach surprised everyone by starting a goalie who had been in the AHL for almost the entire season. In a game he had to have, Peter Laviolette went with a third-stringer. It was a stunning decision.

Michael Leighton was predictably shaky in Game Six. He gave up three goals in the first period, was pulled, and was never seen again in the series. I mean that literally. Leighton supposedly never showed up in practice on Monday, and didn't bother going to the game on Tuesday. I think he burned some bridges in Philadelphia.

So the Sabres had a 3-1 lead with 40 minutes to go, and a 4-3 lead with 20 minutes to go. Yes, Jason Pominville was already out injured, and Tim Connolly exited after a hit by Mike Richards that could have drawn a suspension to the Flyer. But even so ...

"You've got to win that game."

They didn't, losing in overtime. As my good friend and noted author Tim Wendel said, it looked like the Sabres ran out of forwards by the end of Game Six. Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff had little choice but to try Derek Roy and Jochen Hecht in his lineup as they recovered from injuries.

The Flyers went back to starting Brian Boucher, and opted not to take any more chances. They essentially stopped the Sabres from taking any shots in the first period, leaving nothing to chance. Philadelphia scored late in the first to take the lead, added a couple of more goals in the second, and never looked back. The Sabres' gas tank had hit "E" late in Game Six.

It was a sad ending to a magical run by Buffalo, which didn't appear to have any playoff hopes four months ago. The finish won't do much to slow the growth in enthusiasm in the team, which built throughout the run and incorporated the spark provided by new ownership.

The Sabres probably were too banged up to give Washington a good series anyway. Still, a playoff win in Game Six would have given everyone a huge spring boost. You learn in the hockey business how precious opportunities are, and we'll see how this team reacts to this one getting away.

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