June 8, 1999.
The beginning of arguably the most memorable series in Buffalo Sabres history.
It was exactly 21 years ago when the Sabres and Dallas Stars began the Stanley Cup Final.
Looking back, I was six years old. My family was living in Buffalo. I do not remember a single second from this game as it happened. I’m sure we watched it, but my first sports memory didn’t come for another 11 days, during Game 6 of the same series. So, naturally, I had to re-watch this game and research some of the storylines. I think I’ve watched this series four or five times, but I haven’t watched this particular game in years.
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To this day, almost 70 percent of Stanley Cup playoff series have been won by the team that takes Game 1. So this was important, especially for a Sabres team that was a heavy underdog.
The Stacked Dallas Stars
This Stars team was loaded. The Presidents’ Trophy winners came into the playoffs with 51 wins, in just the sixth season after being relocated to Dallas. It was clearly the best team in club history, by far, and arguably still is the best team they have put together in Dallas to this date. The 1998-99 team had six players that have since been inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame – Mike Modano, Joe Nieuwendyk, Brett Hull, Sergei Zubov, Guy Carbonneau and Ed Belfour.
They were well-balanced offensively, but it was their defense and goaltending that put them over the top. In the 82-game regular season, the Stars allowed just 2.05 goals against per game. The Sabres were clearly tremendous underdogs, as a No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, but the Stars didn’t take them lightly. They knew that it would be a tough series. Stars coach Ken Hitchcock was quoted as saying before the series that he thought the Final would go seven games.
Belfour versus Dominik Hasek. It was one of the greatest goalie matchups of all time. Belfour and Hasek’s stats were eerily similar in the postseason. Belfour finished the playoffs with a 1.67 goals against average (GAA) and .930 save percentage (SV%), with a 16-7 record. Hasek finished with a 1.77 GAA, .939 SV% and 13-6 record. It was a battle between the pipes that everyone was looking forward to, and both teams were nervous about.
After re-watching Game 1, I was impressed to see the video coming from Stars’ practice, where they had their goalies laying down with stacked pads across the crease, so that forwards could prepare to face The Dominator’s best move. Months later, Hasek was awarded his fifth Vezina Trophy for top goalie honors.
Stars Buzzing Off the Bat
Enough of the storylines, now to the actual game. It was wild in Dallas. They hadn’t ever seen anything like this with their hockey team. That energy really fueled the Stars to start the game. Every single time that I re-watch this game, I’m amazed that Buffalo was able to stay put and not get blown out of the game in the first period. Every single chance that came off a Stars stick looked like it was going in. But, again, the Sabres had Hasek standing tall (and stacked wide) all game long.
Just 30 seconds into the game, Hull was all alone in the slot, but lost his handle of the puck. If he is able to hold onto the puck there and put an early one past Hasek, that game might have gotten out of hand quick. But Hull was all over the ice, he was playing with a passion and fire from the start. About 5 minutes later, he had an even better chance on an odd-man rush that was turned away by a Hasek pad stack.
The Stars were peppering Hasek with shots from the get-go, and even had a goal called off about halfway through the period. But then, of course, just a few seconds later, the Stars did get that series-opening goal – a power-play tally from Hull… of course. The toughest part about that for Buffalo? There was literally one second left in the Sabres’ penalty kill.
Sabres Turn the Tables
Going into the third period, the score was still 1-0 Dallas. It was a tight, back-and-forth battle, filled with penalty kill after penalty kill. Dallas finished the game with 10 power plays, but only cashed in on one. Anyways, 8:33 into the third period, the Sabres finally found the back of the net on a delayed penalty. About five minutes later, Buffalo scored again. The Sabres really did turn the tables in this game.
As the period winded down, the arena got tense with a nervous energy. The Stars needed a game-tying goal to have a chance in this series-opening game. So with less than a minute remaining, the Sabres’ Michael Peca missed the puck as he was trying to clear it from behind the net, and it ended up in the back of the net. The Stars had tied the game with 49 seconds left in regulation.
But the Sabres kept those tables turned in their favor, as defenseman Jason Woolley jumped up into the offensive zone and fired home the OT game-winner.
“Those are my instincts, to jump and create and find holes and create offense … If I don’t take that chance, maybe we don’t close it out.”Woolley said to Martin Biron on the Sabres’ “Tablet Talk.”
To reiterate, almost 70 percent of Stanley Cup Playoffs series have been won by the team that takes Game 1 to this day. So Game 1 was very important for Buffalo, especially as underdogs on the road. But, we all know how the series ended.
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As a 27-year-old who was six during this Stanley Cup Final series, it was entertaining re-watching and researching everything having to do with Game 1. Let me know in the comments or on Twitter which games of this series you remember the most! (Hopefully not just Game 6)