The Buffalo Sabres were dealt arguably the most crushing blow in franchise history when their 2005-06 season came to an end in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. Knowing that their elimination was due to cruel circumstances and not poor play, the next season couldn’t come quickly enough for Sabres fans, who were eager to see how their team would respond. And respond they did.
The Sabres set out for both redemption and revenge, aiming to prove that their success the previous year was not a one-hit-wonder. Despite losing four key veterans to free agency, Buffalo went on another run for the ages that in some ways eclipsed its predecessor. But unfortunately for the team and fans alike, it too ended in bitter disappointment.
For the final entry in our miniseries on the losses that stand out the most in Sabres history, let’s go back to the team’s supercharged 2006-07 campaign and examine how, when considering both how it ended this time around and everything that came after, it might have been even tougher to endure than the previous season.
Same Sabres, New Look
The hype entering the 2006-07 season for the Sabres may have been the highest in team history. Fans waited patiently every day as the calendar inched towards the fall, but they received a big shake-up before the action even began. Though the Sabres’ original color scheme was blue and gold, they had been wearing red and black since 1996. In the summer of 2006, it was announced that the team would be going back to its roots.
In September, the new logo and jerseys were finally revealed. Navy blue became the team’s primary color rather than the royal blue of the past, and while that change was fine, the logo was not well-received. Whereas the team’s “goathead” red and black logo was praised for its detail and realism, fans and the media alike heavily criticized its replacement for the cartoonishness and resemblance to a banana slug. But interestingly enough, though the new look seemed to be universally disliked, it was amongst the highest-selling jerseys of that season.
Scorched Earth Sabres
Fittingly enough, the new-look Sabres began the 2006-07 campaign in the same place where the previous one had ended -Carolina. After rallying to win 3-2 in a shootout and spoiling the Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup Banner raising celebration, the team won its next nine games to tie the NHL record for the longest winning streak to open a season. They were denied breaking the record when they were finally defeated by the Atlanta Thrashers in their last game of October, which was their only loss in the entire month.
The loss did not stop the momentum and the team kept its foot firmly on the gas. Co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere led the Sabres on a path of destruction that engulfed just about everything in its wake. The 2006-07 Sabres led the NHL in goals scored and recorded the most wins in franchise history and tied for the highest point total (53 and 113, respectively). They also tied the franchise record set just the year before with 25 road victories.
As one could gather from the latter statistic, the team’s offense was its propulsion all season. Briere led the way with 32 goals and 95 points while Thomas Vanek made an outrageous jump from a 48-point rookie season to 43 goals and 84 points in his sophomore campaign. Drury finished with a career-high 37 goals while Derek Roy and Jason Pominville both contributed 60 or more points. Defensively, Brian Campbell contributed 48 points from the blue line and Ryan Miller continued his meteoric rise, logging 40 wins and a .911 save percentage.
With the combined efforts of the entire roster (including numerous American Hockey League call-ups that were thrust into action due to injuries), the Sabres finished the season at first place in the NHL and were awarded the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time ever. Entering the playoffs as the Stanley Cup front runner, Buffalo got a double dose of New York, disposing of the Islanders in the opening round, 4-1, and the Rangers in the second round, 4-2. Though, the defining moment came in Game 5 vs. the Rangers.
Having lost the previous two games and down 1-0 with less than 20 seconds left in regulation, the Sabres were staring a 3-2 series deficit in the face. Then, after winning a faceoff in the Ranger zone, Drury proved why he was the definition of “Captain Clutch” when he picked up a Tim Connolly rebound to the side of the net and roofed his ensuing shot through traffic to tie the game with 7.7 seconds remaining. It remains one of the most legendary moments in Sabres’ history.
Not to be denied after such an epic moment, the Sabres won in overtime on a goal by Maxim Afinogenov and went on to win the series in Game 6. One season removed from their heartbreaking Eastern Conference Final loss, they were right back where they left off. Their opponent this time was the Ottawa Senators, and it couldn’t have been a more fitting matchup.
Senators-Sabres Was Must-See TV
It may have been lost in the years since, but the Senators and Sabres were briefly the most intense rivalry in hockey, and it began the previous season. The Sabres embarrassed their heavily-favored divisional foe in the 2006 Eastern Conference Semi-Final, winning in five games on a historic goal by Pominville in overtime. Ottawa fans wanted revenge and the animosity kept growing during the teams’ eight meetings the next season. It finally reached a boiling point on Feb. 22 in Buffalo.
Senators’ enforcer Chris Neal knocked out Drury with a late (and somehow unpenalized) hit to the head that put the Sabres’ captain on the shelf for four games. The Sabres, who were being hit hard with injuries to begin with, were understandably furious and wasted zero time addressing the situation on the very next shift, putting out their fourth line (Andrew Peters, Adam Mair and a debuting Patrick Kaleta).
It was highly evident what the Sabres were going for. But for some reason, Senators head coach Bryan Murray put his top line of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Mike Comrie (filling in for Daniel Alfredsson) on the ice, making the job of the three Sabres enforcers even easier. The ensuing fracas was one of the wildest in NHL history and the roof nearly exploded off then-HSBC Arena, with nearly every player on the ice involved including goaltenders Ray Emery and Marty Biron. Murray and Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff nearly came to blows between the benches as well.
Order was eventually restored and the Sabres went on to win the game in a shootout. The two teams were tense rivals beforehand, but afterwards, they were practically mortal enemies. Fans and the media alike wanted to see them clash in the postseason once again, and their wish was granted.
Ottawa Exacts Revenge
The 2007 Eastern Conference Final was essentially an exact role reversal of the previous season’s Eastern Conference Semi-Final. This time, the Sabres entered as the top seed in the East while the Senators came in as the fourth seed. Unfortunately for the former, however, it also ended in a surprising five-game upset. The rematch did not live up to the hype and the Senators disposed of the Sabres in relatively easy fashion.
Adding insult to injury for the Sabres was one of the greatest examples of irony in NHL history. Senators captain Alfredsson scored the overtime winner in Game 5 in Buffalo to send his team to its first-ever Stanley Cup Final. It was Alfredsson whom Pominville had danced around in Ottawa the previous year to score the Game 5 overtime winner that knocked out the Senators. Ottawa went on to be defeated in the Cup Final by the Anaheim Ducks, also in five games.
It was a stunning and highly disappointing defeat for Sabres fans, who were certain their team would make it to the Stanley Cup this time around. After firing on all cylinders for the better part of eight months, the bus simply ran out of gas and the Senators (who were far better than their fourth seed indicated) proved to be the superior team. But it wasn’t a complete loss for the Sabres, as they still had the NHL’s premier lineup assembled and would have no problem bouncing back the next season, right?
Wrong. As much as I would love to say that the story for these Sabres ended there, we all know by now that that wasn’t the case. Fans were reeling already from such a demoralizing defeat, but the worst was yet to come.
Gone in the Blink of an Eye
The Sabres had an issue throughout that entire season – both Drury and Briere were slated to enter unrestricted free agency in the offseason. General manager Darcy Regier for some reason opted not to negotiate with either over the course of the campaign despite the outcries of the entire Sabres fanbase. As a result, neither was under contract as the offseason began, even though both were willing to sign team-friendly deals to stay. The Sabres might have known what was about to hit them, but they certainly weren’t ready for it.
Every Sabres fan remembers where they were on July 1, 2007 – a day that Tim Graham of The Buffalo News branded “Black Sunday”. The scenario that had been feared all season became a reality. Both Drury and Briere walked away (to the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, respectively). In less than 12 hours, Buffalo had lost the core of its roster as the collective jaws of Western New York and Southern Ontario dropped (from “Sabres never in running to re-sign co-captains”, The Buffalo News, 7/2/2007).
To this day, nobody quite knows for sure how it happened or who was to blame. It’s tough to tell in hindsight if it was completely Regier’s doing or if he was facing pressure from the Sabres’ ownership group. But, it’s apparent that one way or the other, the front office bungled the situation about as badly as they could and the team ended up losing its two top weapons. Additionally, Vanek signed a preposterous seven-year, $50 million offer sheet from the Edmonton Oilers five days later and the Sabres had no choice but to match it.
Drury and Briere were without question the two most important pieces of the Sabres’ roster, and their absence was immediately noticeable. In addition to the offensive void, the young team was suddenly left without its leaders and had to find its own way. One year removed from winning the Presidents’ Trophy, the Sabres suffered a 23-point decline and missed the 2008 Playoffs.
2006-07 Still Haunts Sabres Fans 15 Years Later
Losing the duo wasn’t the sole reason Buffalo went in the tank after such a great run of success, but it was the biggest part of it. When considering how difficult the team’s elimination was, and adding to it that its top two stars departed afterward because of managerial ineptitude, 2007 is probably the toughest loss in Sabres’ history.
Coming out of the 2004-05 NHL Lockout, the Sabres suddenly transformed into the best team in the game and it truly seemed like a Stanley Cup was within their reach. If Regier and company could have kept the lineup intact, perhaps hockey’s ultimate prize would have come to Western New York by now and the franchise’s fortunes would have gone in a completely different direction. But that’s just not what happened.
Though the team briefly regained itself in the early 2010s, it in many ways still has not recovered. Drury and Briere’s departure can hardly be attributed to Buffalo’s ongoing 11-year postseason drought, but it seemed to be an omen of bad things to come. If the Sabres ever manage to get back to winning, perhaps fans will finally be able to put “Black Sunday” to rest. Until then, it’s yet another case of “what might have been” in the pantheon of Buffalo sports.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read my content! I’m a Niagara University journalism graduate and a lifelong Buffalo Sabres and hockey fan. I’ll gladly discuss anything Sabres with you. Talk to me on Twitter too if you’d like!