Indelible: “not able to be forgotten or removed.”
Not many moments in one’s life can be described as indelible. The first and last day of school, your wedding and maybe the births of your children would qualify. For elements as relatively meaningless as sports, it takes something truly special to never be forgotten.
For Buffalo Sabres fans, May 4, 2007, against the New York Rangers will forever be indelible.
After a crushing end to their playoffs the previous season, the Sabres flew out of the gate on their way to a 10-win start to the 2006-07 campaign. They won the Presidents’ Trophy, accumulating 113 points in the regular season and paced the league in goals with 308 — an average of 3.76 per game!
Having cruised past Ted Nolan’s New York Islanders in the first round, the Sabres were looking to be state champs and defeat the Rangers. Things were looking good after the first two games with the Sabres winning 5-2 and 3-2 respectively. Rangers’ super-pest Sean Avery was kept in check.
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That changed when the series shifted to Madison Square Garden. Avery’s aggravating style was beginning to wane on the Sabres and he was drawing the ire of Daniel Briere. The Rangers posted consecutive 2-1 wins at home, tying things up. As the series shifted back to Buffalo a best-of-three, little did we know we were on the precipice of something special.
Sabres’ High-Flying Start
The teams had an extra day off between games four and five. In that time, Lindy Ruff decided to make some changes to his lineup. In place of Drew Stafford and Dan Paille, he put Paul Gaustad and Maxim Afinogenov. Gaustad had missed 35 games with an ankle injury. Afinogenov had been less reliable and causing too many turnovers, so he was sat for the previous game.
The building electric, the Sabres came out flying, no doubt feeding off the energy. With multiple chances in the first three minutes, it seemed inevitable that the Sabres would light the lamp in short order.
That didn’t happen. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist just kept shutting the door. From his patented stance along the goal line, he brought a sense of calm amid the chaos the Sabres administered. Always square, never panicked.
Danius Zubrus had multiple rushes and opportunities to score but Lundqvist had an answer for each one. As the likes of Tim Connolly and Derek Roy tried their best on the rush, they, too, could find no openings.
As the period ticked away, it appeared that the high-flying start the Sabres were hoping for would not come to fruition. Both Lundqvist and Ryan Miller had shut the doors to their respective nets. Tensions rose entering the second period.
Goaltending and Special Teams Make the Difference
The rest of the game remained fairly uneventful on the scoresheet. It certainly wasn’t uneventful for the goaltenders. By the end of the game, Lundqvist had faced 40 shots while Miller dealt with 23.
The special teams battle in this game was something not traditionally playoff-esque. The Rangers finished the game with no goals on seven opportunities. The Sabres had six opportunities themselves. Traditional wisdom dictates that come playoff time, referees put their whistles away and just “let the boys play.”
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That was not the case in this game, nor was it really the case for the entire series. The Rangers scored eight goals on 30 attempts while the Sabres mustered five goals in 35 chances on the man advantage. The Rangers offence really relied on power-play scoring as nearly 62 percent of their goals came that way in the six-game series.
Jaromir Jagr, Michael Nylander and Brendan Shanahan ran the Rangers’ power play and were good at it. In this game, however, there was no solving Miller on the man advantage.
Lundqvist, for his part, continued his stellar play throughout the game. No doubt motivated by his previous benching, Afinogenov pushed all game for a goal. Streaking down the left side, he put a shot on Lundqvist that fooled him. As Lundqvist sprawled on his back, fans waited in anticipation for the puck to cross the line, but to no avail.
Lundqvist would not be beaten on this night. Or at least, so it seemed.
Sabres Find Themselves Down Late
As the time ebbed away, the excitement in the stands turned from boisterously loud to nervous tension. The emotions that follow a game with so much on the line are hardly linear. With each second that ticked off the clock, this game was no longer fun. It was serious.
With under eight minutes remaining in regulation and the game still tied at zero, Sabres fans were sent on the first of many cardiac rollercoasters that awaited them this night.
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Brad Isbister carried the puck out of the zone with Jagr. They entered the Sabres’ zone on a two-on-one. As Jagr was receiving a check, he played the puck to a streaking Nylander who wristed the puck into the back of the net from the slot.
The punch in the gut was soon relieved by the waving arms of referee Don VanMassenhoven. After Isbister played the puck to Jagr, he continued on a path to the net and ended up making contact with Miller. That contact, however slight, was enough to knock Miller off the play and draw a goaltender interference penalty.
Disaster averted. But that didn’t mean the cardiac rollercoaster was over. Not even close.
Martin Straka picked up the loose puck in the neutral zone. Starting flat-footed, he slowly gained the zone and fired an unassuming wrist shot through the legs of Brian Campbell. This shot that Miller would have normally eaten for breakfast caught him off guard and went in and out off the middle bar of the net.
The puck came out so quickly there was some confusion as to whether it went in. Straka knew. Avery knew. Unfortunately, Miller knew it, too.
The Sabres were now 3:18 from having arguably their greatest season ever put on the brink of extinction. All of the fanfare that surrounded this travelling roadshow during the season could have one final hurrah away from home.
Through the stunned silence that filled the hearts of Sabres fans lived a resolute assurance that this was not going to end this way. There had to be more. There always was with this group.
Sabres’ Will Finds a Way
One last shot. That’s all they had.
With 16 seconds left, it was all or nothing. The Sabres deployed Connolly, Briere, Zubrus, Thomas Vanek, Teppo Numminen and one other player — Chris Drury. The memo for them was to continue peppering pucks until they heard the final buzzer.
Having gained possession of the puck in the corner, Drury played it out front. Connolly received the puck and put a hard shot on net. As he had done so many times, Lundqvist was there to stop it, giving up a rebound.
As Drury emerged from behind the net, he fired a prayer on net that brought Western New York to its feet. They had finally beaten Lundqvist. With just 7.7 seconds left, the Sabres and their fans again had life. As the six-man huddle slowly moved back into the Sabres’ zone, sounds of jubilation filled the arena and it’s surrounding area.
The third period over, the Sabres were in the driver’s seat. They had played a completely dominant game and had to wait nearly 60 minutes for their first reward. Now that they had it, it was time to park the car in the garage.
As the teams emerged for overtime, the excitement in the building was palpable. Chants of “Let’s Go Buffalo” filled the air in anticipation of what was to come. Oh, no one knew what was to come, but they knew it would have to be something special.
Shortly after overtime started, the Sabres were forced to kill off an early penalty. As Lundqvist had done for the Rangers so many times, Miller stood tall for his squad when they needed him most.
With 15:32 remaining, the Sabres now had their own chance on the man advantage in overtime. They had not scored on five previous chances in the game while putting up seven shots. The last camera shot before the faceoff was of Afinogenov, as the focused forward wanted an opportunity to prove Ruff right.
Jason Pominville fired a shot off the faceoff that went wide. The puck came around the boards to Dmitri Kalinin who played it to Afinogenov at the top of the zone. As if waiting for just the right lane, Afinogenov moved laterally before firing a hard, low shot on net. Through Vanek’s screen, the puck found a way through the legs of Lundqvist.
As the crowd inside and outside the arena erupted, the weight of overcoming his lack of offence in the series became too much for Afinogenov and he celebrated by sliding on his stomach through centre ice.
The camera panned back and forth between the pandemonium in the arena and outside it at the party in the plaza. Nowadays, such a gathering is commonplace in many cities during the playoffs. At that time, it was something the Sabres had pioneered. That night no doubt registered on the Richter scale.
An Indelible Mark
Watching the highlights to this day brings nearly the same amount of euphoria as it did on that spring day in 2007. The moment. The execution. The crowd. Every vestige of Game 5 against the Rangers has left a mark on a generation of Sabres fans that will never be taken away.
The goosebumps that follow, while exhilarating, feel hollow. The fact that the Sabres haven’t had a truly meaningful game in nearly a decade has worn on the fanbase. Remembering the atmosphere and just how good things can be around this team feels miles away when looking at the current product.
While we wait for the current conglomerate to get it’s act together, we’ll always have these memories. We’ll always have these goosebumps. We’ll always have Game 5.