The 2005-06 season was a very memorable one for Buffalo Sabres fans. Coming out of the NHL lockout, the team was not expected to accomplish much with a low payroll and the second-lowest highest-paid player in the league. They were a young team, led by co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury along with Teppo Numminen and Mike Grier.
A number of young players were making their first real impact in the NHL. Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Paul Gaustad, Jason Pominville and Tim Connolly began to form a nucleus that would excite unexpected Sabres fans for the next two years.
On top of that was the exciting season fans were treated to by net-minder Ryan Miller. This was his first real season at the helm in net for Buffalo. He finished his stellar regular season with a .914 save percentage, a 2.60 goals-against average and an 18.17 goals saved above average. This season, his GSAA would have ranked sixth in the league, ahead of Carey Price, Frederik Andersen, John Gibson and Pekka Rinne.
After disposing of the Philadelphia Flyers in six games with an emphatic 7-1 victory, Buffalo went on to face the powerhouse Ottawa Senators, a team they struggled against in the regular season. It was this game, Game 1, that was the first NHL game I attended.
Getting to the game was interesting. People talk about the Senators struggling to fill seats today. In 2006, with a 113-point team, I was able to convince my dad to go the day of the game. I got home from school around 3:30, we purchased the tickets and two and a half hours later, me, my dad, and my die-hard Oilers fan friend, Justin, were on our way to Ottawa. It’s hard to believe the tickets were not sold out even at that point.
Derek Roy Sparks the Offence
As the puck dropped, excitement filled the air. The pods of brave Sabres fans who met in the parking lot descended on the Corel Centre, hoping to see their young team keep pace with the favourite. Senators fans were excited about their team and liked their chances against the surprising Sabres.
With fans still finding their seats, Henrik Tallinder played the puck up the left wing behind Senator Martin Havlat. Roy scooped in to pick up the puck. As he drove to the net, he slid the puck across the crease to a wide open Grier who opened the scoring for Buffalo at the 00:35 mark. I couldn’t believe it. Mere seconds into my first game and my team had scored. With Sabres fans screaming in ecstasy, the building grew quiet as the home crowd was shocked at the unanticipated start.
The feeling would not last long, however. Only two and a half minutes later, Dany Heatley brought the puck in on the left side. After waiting for an opening, Heatley lined a precision pass through the defenders to a wide open Jason Spezza. Just over three minutes in, and the game was tied.
The tie wouldn’t remain long, however. With the building once again electric, Ottawa took the puck from the faceoff into the offensive zone. Senators Captain Daniel Alfredsson grabbed the puck in the corner and played it to Anton Volchenkov at the point. He let a one-timer go that was stopped by Miller. Bryan Smolinski was parked in front and, fighting off the defender, slid the puck in on the rebound to give the Senators a lead just 15 seconds after Spezza’s goal.
The roof came off the building. THIS was the Senators team everyone was expecting. I didn’t know what to think, the game had started well but now took a severe turn. It was early, though. After a raucous first three minutes, the next three minutes were tame, until Chris Neil took a hooking penalty.
As time was winding down on the power play, the Ottawa-native, Roy, played the puck to Numminen at the point. His one-timer found its way through and tied the game at two goals apiece not even seven minutes in. The pendulum of momentum was swinging, and this was only the beginning. The rest of the period was subdued as both teams traded penalties.
A side note, looking at the game notes there were matching two-minute penalties handed out at the 02:18 mark to Zdeno Chara and… Max Afinogenov? I wish for the life of me I could remember these penalties as I’m sure this Battle of the Titans was spectacular. In reality, Afinogenov should be happy he lived to tell the tale.
Sabres and Sens Trade Special Teams Goals
With barely any time to catch our collective breath, I’m not sure how the players were ready to begin the second, but ready they were. Within the first two minutes, defenceman Christoph Schubert picked up the puck in his own end and fed a streaking Havlat who beat the Sabres’ defence and slid the puck past Miller on the backhand.
As the crowd was still roaring, Jay McKee took a hooking penalty 23 seconds later. Now was the time for Ottawa to really start putting it to the pesky Sabres.
As it turned out, however, Connolly took possession of the puck in his own end and moved up ice. Approaching his blue line he put on the shake-and-bake to send the Ottawa defender flying into the boards. From the neutral zone he and Gaustad had a two-on-one with Wade Redden. Selling the pass, Connolly managed to drag the puck around a sprawling Redden and by some impossibility backhand the puck past Ray Emery. A shorthanded goal to tie the game at three only three and a half minutes into the period. I was riding the wave of emotion watching this game.
Just over 20 seconds later, Pominville was charged with a hooking minor. Having killed off the McKee penalty, the Sabres were feeling good about their penalty kill. Just five seconds after Mckee left the box, Redden let a shot go from the point. There was a scramble in front and I can remember leaning forward from the 300 level to see what was happening down below me. Chara played the puck in front to an open Heatley who deposited the puck over Miller’s sprawled out glove. I can vividly remember Heatley’s arm-raised body slam into the glass in celebration.
The Sabres found themselves down a goal for the third time in the game less than five minutes into the second period. Special teams were playing a large part, with Buffalo scoring both a power play and shorthanded goal and Ottawa now having scored on the power play. The penalties for both teams continued to pile up with a minute left in the second period. At that point, Buffalo had been charged with six penalties to Ottawa’s four.
With time winding down in the second, Ottawa was looking to escape the period with the lead. With just over 30 seconds left, Roy played the puck from centre to his winger Grier on the right side. As they entered the zone, Roy was knocked down and Grier dropped the puck to Tallinder. Tallinder drew the defenceman to his side of the ice and slid the puck across to Roy- now on his feet- to fire the shot into the open cage.
As with the rest of the game, no one quit until the whistle blew. The hectic game, flying up and down the ice, was tied at four after forty minutes. I remember sitting dumbfounded during the intermission. In my fifteen years I had never been to an NHL game and this night was turning out to be more entertaining than I had envisioned that afternoon in math class.
Tim Connolly Beats the Buzzer
As the third frame began, I remember feeling like this must be where the magic ends. This run-and-gun style will no doubt be replaced by the more defensively sound game we’re all accustomed to in the playoffs. This out-of-your-seat action would turn into a sweaty palmfest until the final buzzer.
As it turned out, Ottawa really wanted another lead. Picking off a Buffalo clearing attempt, Redden put the puck on net. The rebound went to Havlat who had his shot stopped. Another rebound came out on the right side to Mike Underwood…er…Fisher who, full cage and all, delivered the puck to the wide open net. Ottawa, for the fourth time in the game, had the lead, this time 16 seconds into the period.
Buffalo continued to fight back. Throughout the rest of the period they had two more power play opportunities but failed to connect on either. At 17:18 of the frame, Buffalo’s Brian Campbell was charged with a tripping minor. Now over 17 minutes without a goal, it felt safe to assume that the goal scoring had ended. Ottawa would no doubt use this penalty to get some all important time in the offensive zone and kill the clock.
If that were the case, though, this would not have been a “classic”- at least, not for Sabres fans. Just over a minute into the Ottawa power play, Roy pressured Havlat at the Buffalo blue line and Connolly came away with the puck. Roy and Connolly now entered the Ottawa zone on a two-one-one. Connolly continued to stickhandle, keeping everyone guessing as to what his plan was with the puck. At the last possible second, Connolly played the puck on his forehand over to “hometown boy” Roy. Roy buried a one-timer past an extended Emery.
Elated. Absolutely elated. To that point in my life I don’t believe I had ever produced a sound similar to what came out at that moment. Just when everything seemed lost, this never-quit band of brothers had mustered another goal. At this point, all that was left to do was hunker down and await overtime.
Hold on. The Campbell penalty was not over yet. Just 20 seconds after the Sabres had managed to come back from behind for the fourth time, Chara directed a shot from the point on Miller. As the rebound sat in front, Miller gambled to reach for it, leaving himself vulnerable to the puck being moved. As it turned out, Alfredsson found the loose puck and played across the slot to the wide open Smolinski for an easy tap-in.
This goal remains so vivid in my mind. As the puck slid across, Miller, now committed to the poke check, could only reach across with his goal stick. Having scored the goal, Smolinski just stood still, his arms raised in the spotlight. From my perch at the opposite end of the rink, I could see the wide grin on his face. Miller, meanwhile, lay motionless in the crease, obviously defeated. The sound was deafening. I honestly couldn’t register it in my ears and it came across as a static tone. Now…NOW the game is over.
I sat slumped, head in my hands. This team had come back and buoyed my hopes so many times on this night. During the goal celebration my friend Justin was euphoric. He was the biggest Oilers fan but had spent a number of years living in the Ottawa Valley and had grown to like the Senators. Through the corner of my eye, I could see him standing, screaming, pointing multiple finger-guns at me in jubilation.
The next thing I remember was my dad asking me the pivotal question, “Do you wanna leave now?” There was 1:13 left. The Sabres had already scored two shorthanded goals and come back from a deficit four times. With a two and a half hour drive ahead and school in the morning, it was tempting. Let’s get out of here before I have to hear them celebrate the inevitable empty-net goal. To this day, I am so grateful to my fifteen-year old self that I decided to ride this one to the finish.
The crowd didn’t quiet down. They had so many things to cheer for on this night and were preparing for a fun drive home. The Sabres attempted a number of entries into the zone right in front of me but these were not successful. With each zone clearing, the home crowd roared to a new level.
The time ticked down…50 seconds…40 seconds…30 seconds. With 20 seconds left, Roy picked up the puck at his blue line. Having already scored two goals and two assists, could the hometown boy really find magic one more time?
Roy dumped the puck in on net. Somehow, after hitting Emery it hit the boards, deflected off the net and just stayed there, behind the net. Roy took a wide angle and drew Chara to follow him. Briere, quiet to this point in the night, found an opening to win the race to the puck. In desperation, he played the puck out front and it went off the Senator in front and deflected to Emery. With the puck bouncing so quickly, Emery didn’t have time to cover it. He sprawled to cover it. Seemingly out of nowhere, Connolly found the puck and slashed a backhand that found it’s way over the shoulder of Emery.
Stunned. Absolutely, completely stunned. As Connolly saw the puck touch the twine he jumped in the air in celebration. I jumped nearly as high. They had done it. For the fifth time, they had come back to tie it. You better believe my finger-guns were fully engaged. The Corel Centre had turned into the largest deflated balloon I had ever seen. With just 10.7 seconds left, we were all tied up at six.
Chris Drury Seals the Victory
The third intermission was surreal. The emotion involved in a tight playoff game is difficult to compare to anything. This game was a different animal. Having seen 12 goals, including three goals in the final 3:37 of the third, everyone was tense. Would these teams continue to tempt fate by exchanging chances back and forth yet again?
We didn’t have to wait long to find out. The ice was still wet as the players took the ice. Volchenkov carried the puck in his own zone and looked to move it up the right side. As he went to pass the puck, he inexplicably fanned on the shot. Was it wet ice? A rut? We may never know. As the puck flubbed off of Volchenkov’s stick, his feet kicked it up to an alert Grier. In the commotion, Grier moved the puck to Drury coming down the left side. From the opposite end of the rink I can still see Emery’s water bottle rise as Drury’s wrist shot found the back of the net.
Exultation. I was in utter disbelief. I tried to scream but couldn’t find my voice. The toll of cheering for so many goals had ended my night. I will never forget that walk out of the arena. The pods of Sabres fans that met in the parking lot three hours earlier were reunited and serenading Kanata with chants of “Let’s Go Buffalo!” I never knew I could have so many friends among people I didn’t know. Once the high-fives and chanting ended, we started the long drive home.
As we drove, the three of us were trying to chew on what we had witnessed that night. That game was unlike any other game we had ever seen. While my dad, a Leafs fan, and Justin had little riding on the game, it meant everything to me. That win cemented everything in my mind. I would never cheer for another team again.
Sabres and Sens Were Never the Same
The win propelled the Sabres to a 3-0 series lead. One of the most memorable goals in Sabres history was scored by Jason Pominville just four games later. The Sabres’ season would ultimately fall short in seven games against the Carolina Hurricanes but that’s another story.
For Ottawa, the impact was great as well. That summer, they were forced to make a difficult decision: Would they keep Chara or Redden? Ask that question now and the answer is easy. At the time, however, the Sabres had exposed Chara with their speed. As a result, the Senators opted to move on from Chara and the rest is history.
I’ve been to numerous Sabres games since. Heck, I’ve even seen a full line brawl between Toronto and Buffalo. As long as I live, short of seeing them raise the Stanley Cup, there will never be another game to top this one. For many Sabres fans, Game 5 was the more memorable game. But without Game 1, Jason Pominville wouldn’t have scored the most memorable goal of his career. May 5 2006, a classic forever.