For Sabres fans, playoff fever is in the air. So too is nostalgia, with the upcoming alumni reunion and celebration. I'll acknowledge both by ranking my favorite Sabres playoff memories. This is my personal list, not meant as a ranking of the team's greatest moments. I might add that the first playoff series I remember was the Sabres' 1980 semifinals loss to the Islanders.
10. 1993 First Round vs. Boston, Game 1. I worked on the copy desk of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle at the time. There was no TV coverage of the Sabres in Rochester then. At the paper, the AP wire sent updates at the end of each period. Game 1 in Boston went into overtime 4-4, and I can remember staring at my computer waiting for something that looked like this: "NHL--Sabres-Bruins--FINAL". I knew the news was within that headline, and until that came in I knew they were still playing.
Then, there it was. "Buffalo 5, Boston 4, OT, Final" Bob Sweeney scored the goal. I've only seen a highlight of it, and at that only once or twice.
9. 1999, First Round vs. Ottawa, Game 1. By this time the games were on TV in Rochester, and I sat down to watch this one hoping to see exactly what I got: Dominik Hasek holding the Sabres in against a Senators team with superior talent. Hasek was superb -- a true example of a goaltender "stealing a game" -- and Miroslav Satan gave the Sabres the win in the second overtime. They went on to sweep Ottawa.
8. 1983, First Round vs. Montreal, Game 2. In the Forum, Bob Sauve shut out the Canadiens in Game 1, 1-0. It seemed impossible that he could repeat that performance, but he did as the Sabres won 3-0 and came home for the sweep having not allowed the Canadiens a goal. All I really remember is Ted Darling's voice, sounding more and more incredulous every time Sauve made a save. Buffalo won Game 3, 4-2, and advanced.
7. 2007, Second Round vs. NY Rangers, Game 5. Chris Drury's tying goal with 7.7 seconds left in the third period may be the most revered goal in Sabres history. But I enjoy the memory of Max Afinogenov's game-winner more. His sprint and slide across center ice after scoring in overtime is ingrained in my memory, and so is the joy on my wife's face. As fans, our reaction to the Drury goal was largely relief. When Max scored, everyone was just so happy.
6. 1997, First Round vs. Ottawa, Game 7. One of the most nerve-wracking games ever. The Sabres won their division but lost Hasek to an "injury" and faced the prospect of going out in one round to Ottawa, at that point just emerging from its reputation as a lowly expansion team. Fans remember Derek Plante's winner, eluding Ron Tugnutt's grasp, very well. But do you remember Plante scoring the tying goal, midway through the third period? He pushed a face-off toward the net and somehow the puck flew right in. I remember thinking at that point that the Sabres just had to win.
This game remains the only Game 7 the Sabres have ever won. They're 1-5.
5. 2006, First Round vs. Philadelphia, Game 1. Because it's the first year I ever owned season tickets, many of my favorite Sabres memories are from this season. And what a season it was. I'll always remember the feeling as the Sabres were introduced for this game, as they took the ice. The crowd noise was deafening. Fans wore white T-shirts.
Daniel Briere's double-overtime goal makes this game an all-time favorite for me.
4. 2001, Second Round vs. Pittsburgh, Game 5. I watched most home games from the press box these days. It was a Saturday afternoon game, and the series was tied 2-2. The only memory of the game I have is Stu Barnes' winning wrist shot past Johan Hedberg. This series ending the way it did, with Pittsburgh OT wins in Games 6 and 7, remains a very bitter memory for me. Never should've happened. And, the sudden and unworthy end of the Hasek era.
3. 1990, First Round vs. Montreal, Game 5. Mrs. Jean Knox was a family friend, and she arranged for me to watch the second period of this game from her seat, of course next to Seymour Knox, the Sabres' founder and owner. Two excellent teams, one with a history of winning, the other being the Buffalo Sabres. I remember Mr. Knox wearing his headphones, as always, listening to the radio broadcast. I remember Bobby Smith giving Montreal the lead, the period ending, shaking hands with Mr. Knox and heading back to the oranges.
And yes, she watched that period from my seat, way up in the corner.
2. 2006, Second Round vs. Ottawa, Game 3. The Sabres stunned the Senators with two road wins, but still there was some convincing to do. The arena was super-charged. The game went into overtime, 2-2. My friend Greg refused to leave his seat for the intermission, and the game is still known to us as the "Alone Time" game.
When J.P. Dumont scored on a deflected lob shot, I picked my wife up and held her as she screamed and cried. Some of our happiest moments together have been at hockey games.
1. 2006, Third Round vs. Carolina, Game 3. Yes, it turns out that my favorite Sabres playoff moment ever was a second-period Ales Kotalik goal. Go figure. The Sabres were dominating the Hurricanes. There was no doubt in my mind at this point that they would win the Stanley Cup. It's the only time I've ever felt that way.
I can still see the whole play. The crowd was already in a tizzy as the play started. Lydman pinching and laying out Commodore. Commodore holding his stick for a delayed penalty. Lydman finally getting it free, then passing to Afinogenov, who quickly found Kotalik in the slot. 4-1. I know in life that an NHL arena roof cannot just bust open because it did not happen at this moment.
The series was never the same after that goal. Carolina fought back and nearly tied Game 3. Late in the game, Henrik Tallinder broke his arm. Carolina won Game 4 easily and never again trailed the series.
This game is bittersweet. So is Sabres history. Seems right to rank it first.