The way Mike Ramsey looked at it, the Buffalo Sabres were about two minutes away from pulling off a miracle. And as a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, Ramsey knows something about miracles.
But the Sabres' bid for the most improbable of victories was extinguished when Brendan Shanahan scored with 2:06 left in regulation Saturday night to lift the New Jersey Devils to a 4-4 tie at Brendan Byrne Arena.
With one extraordinary exception, this game had all the makings of the Sabres' 8-3 surrender at Detroit Dec. 11. And that extraordinary exception was Clint Malarchuk.
Not since Dec. 13, 1980 had a Sabres goaltender faced as many as 50 shots in a game. Malarchuk faced 54, turning aside 50 in one of the more sensational efforts in franchise history.
The Devils had at least 16 shots in each of the three regulation periods, while the aggregate 54 established a franchise mark.
Meanwhile, Buffalo put a scant 17 shots on Devils goaltender Sean Burke, whose effort was the extreme opposite of Malarchuk's. Burke allowed goals on the Sabres' first two shots, and four of their first eight.
Dale Hawerchuk had two goals and an assist for the Sabres, who also received goals from Mike Hartman and Christian Ruuttu. Also scoring for New Jersey were Bruce Driver, John MacLean and Patrik Sundstrom.
The Sabres carried a 4-2 lead into the third period despite being outshot, 34-12. Still, they pressed their luck. Buffalo's forwards did little in the way of backchecking or counter-attacking, and the defense, already softened by injuries, simply couldn't cope.
"We wanted to save the Devils gas money," Ramsey said. "They had to Zamboni only half the ice."
The third period was only 54 seconds old when Sundstrom scored to bring the Devils within 4-3. The goal was a prelude to the one Shanahan would score to force overtime. Sundstrom, standing unguarded to Malarchuk's right, took a pass from Jon Morris and hit the open side of the net. Malarchuk had come out to take the shooting angle away from Morris.
Viasheslav Fetisov and Shanahan worked the same play on the game-tying goal. Pierre Turgeon and Dave Andreychuk were late helping out in the defensive end as Fetisov faced Malarchuk straightaway from 20 feet out. When Malarchuk challenged Fetisov, the defenseman slipped a pass to Shanahan, alone to the right. Shanahan calmly moved the puck in front of the open goal before snapping it over the goal line.
"I was right at ice level, flat out, stretching for it, hoping I could poke it off his stick," Malarchuk said. "I even helped him put it in. He had the net; he just pushed it right in."
It was an excruciating sight for Malarchuk, who played brilliantly in search of his first victory since Nov. 28.
"They were coming pretty good," he said. "We had a hard time getting out of our end sometimes. It seems we had to dump it off the glass a lot of times to get out. I guess that's a tribute to their good forechecking."
Yet it was difficult for the Devils to convert their tenacious forechecking into goals. How hot was Malarchuk?
"I remember in the second period, (Kirk) Muller shot the puck and I didn't even see it. And it went right in my glove."
The tie allowed both teams to extend their unbeaten streaks. New Jersey is 3-0-4 in its last seven games and is unbeaten at home (4-0-2) in December. Buffalo is 2-0-2 in its last four games.
The three stars went to Malarchuk, Shanahan and Driver.
The Devils outshot the Sabres, 16-5, in the first period, but Buffalo shot a sizzling 40 percent, received incredible goaltending from Malarchuk and took a 2-1 advantage into the locker room.
Hartman opened the scoring on Buffalo's first shot -- a straightaway 25-footer that cleanly beat Burke at 3:35. It was Hartman's fifth goal, all of them coming in December.
The play was set up by Hawerchuk, who gave his mates time to break for the net by pulling up on a rush along the left boards. Hawerchuk attempted a pass for Rick Vaive, but the puck hit Vaive's skate and stopped dead. Hartman moved in and shot without hesitation.
The Devils came back with a power-play goal by Driver at 6:48, a slap shot off a rush that beat Malarchuk low to the far side.
The period had almost reached the halfway mark before the Sabres threw another shot at Burke. But, once again, Buffalo cashed in the opportunity and reopened its one-goal lead.
Hawerchuk scored the goal, his ninth, at 9:23 on a 35-footer that beat Burke between the pads. Each team had four skaters at the time.
New Jersey put another 18 shots on Malarchuk in the second period. But 17 were turned aside and the Sabres, who had only seven shots of their own, departed with a 4-2 lead.
MacLean tied the score, 2-2, by netting his 27th -- second in the league to St. Louis' Brett Hull -- at 2:01. MacLean shook a check by defenseman Jay Wells, stepped out from the corner and snapped the puck to the upper corner, glove side.
But Buffalo needed only 43 seconds to regain the lead -- and another 24 seconds to double it.
Hawerchuk scored his second of the game at 2:44 on a half-ice breakaway. The lone assist went to Malarchuk, who kicked a long slap shot out toward center ice, where Hawerchuk gained possession in stride.
The Sabres had three goals on seven shots, and the crowd had seen about enough of Burke. Nonetheless, the fans turned up the volume on their derisive chants when Ruuttu scored his eighth at 3:08. This was, unquestionably, a soft goal. Ruuttu's sharp-angle shot from the left side glanced off Burke's glove and dribbled over the goal line.
Meanwhile, Malarchuk continued to frustrate New Jersey shooters. At one point, he made three goal-mouth stops in succession.
But it was a shot by MacLean late in the period that adequately illustrated the Devils' despair. In alone from 8 feet out, MacLean tried to overpower Malarchuk with a half-slap shot. Malarchuk closed his pads, narrowed the angle and made his 12th save of the period.