The Buffalo Sabres speak with pride of all they overcame this season. They made do without key players. They adopted a new system, added a bunch of rookies to the mix and still took a run at a divisional title.
But there was one hurdle the Sabres never were able to clear beginning with their season-opener and extendingthrough Friday night's 2-1 season-ending loss to the New Jersey Devils at The Meadowlands. Make them play from behind in the third period and the Sabres are goners.
Given the lead on Claude Lemieux's tying-breaking goal late in the second period, the Devils rode the haunting trend to a victory over Buffalo in the deciding seventh game of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
The Devils advanced past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 1988 and will have the home advantage in a semifinal series against Boston that begins on Sunday. The Sabres head home believing better things will come next season when two of their top offensive threats, Pat LaFontaine and Craig Simpson, return to the lineup.
The Sabres were badly in need of another gunner or two in Game Seven. They were outshot, 46-18, and loomed as candidates for a more emphatic beating but for the sensational goaltending of their backbone, Dominik Hasek.
"Dominik was unbelievable," said his counterpart, Devils netminder Martin Brodeur. "I was laughing at the end. Every time we had it going, it was boom-boom-boom and he was saving them. It was unbelievable."
Although New Jersey's territorial edge was decisive, the game might have followed a far different course had Dave Hannan nailed an open 5-footer late in the first period. The Sabres held a 1-0 lead at the time on a power-play goal by Philippe Boucher. The Devils countered soon thereafter with a power-play goal by Bruce Driver.
Buffalo's fate was in devilish hands once Lemieux broke the tie. The Sabres finished the regular season 0-18-2 in games they trailed after two periods.
They were 0-3 under the same circumstances in the playoffs.
The Sabres paid the trend no mind. They kept plugging away in the third period and demanded one last mindboggling save out of Brodeur before accepting defeat. With Hasek off for an extra attacker and 15 seconds left, Dale Hawerchuk fired from 25 feet at the upper half of the net. Brodeur wiggled out of a scramble, turned on his side, raised his left pad and blocked what became Buffalo's last shot of the season.
"I tried to bear down and roof it," Hawerchuk said. "He got his glove on it or whatever, his glove or the top of his pad."
"I saw it," Brodeur said. "I knew there was the whole net upstairs. I put my pad up and just got a piece of it."
After calling three first-period penalties that resulted in a power-play goal a side, referee Dan Marouelli gave the impression in the second period that he would let the deciding game decide itself. Marouelli pardoned both teams on some clear infractions, none more obvious than when Randy McKay kept Wayne Presley from a crossing pass by tackling him from behind.
But just when it seemed that no play was an illegal play, Doug Bodger was slapped with a hooking call for bringing down Stephane Richer. The Devils applied such intense pressure in the Buffalo end that the Sabres were unable to replace their defensive pairing of Randy Moller and Richard Smehlik. The Devils capped their barrage with Lemieux's goal at 13:49, two seconds after Bodger returned to the ice.
"I saw both defensemen behind the net and I tried to yell for them to come back," Hasek said. "But it was too fast. I saw him (Lemieux) but he shot it at once to the 5-hole."
The Devils outshot the Sabres, 12-4, in the second period and held a 26-13 edge into the third.
The first puck had yet to drop when Bob Sweeney and Jim Dowd were tossed for jousting in the center faceoff circle. The feistiness continued throughout a first period that ended tied, 1-1, on an exchange of power-play goals.
The Sabres gained the lead on Boucher's goal at the six-minute mark. Alexander Mogilny dangled the puck around the New Jersey end and left it for Hawerchuk in the right corner. Hawerchuk surveyed his options and spotted Boucher breaking off the blue line into the high slot. Boucher snapped a 30-footer into the far side while Brodeur was peeking around a Yuri Khmylev screen.
The Sabres nearly added to their lead a couple of minutes later. But Brodeur's glove was larcenous. Presley gained a puck that Brodeur fanned upon behind the net and dished in front to Jason Dawe. Dawe's point-blank shot was stopped, the rebound lay atop the crease and Hannan, the hero of Game Six, was looking at a yawning net. Brodeur stretched out his glove as Hannan cocked and the Sabres, once again, had been frustrated by the magical mitt.
Not long thereafter, at 8:14, Hannan was caught dropping Bobby Holik with a retaliatory trip well behind the play. The penalty was 21 seconds short of expiring when Driver evened the score on a slap shot from the left point.
Bodger picked up a loose puck in front of Hasek and made as if he would shoot it around the boards on his forehand. Instead, Bodger chipped a soft backhander the other way and Driver gained control. Moller was checking a Devil from the slot and Hasek caught only a late glimpse of the 45-footer that glanced off his glove hand and into the net. Driver's second goal of the series ended Hasek's scoreless streak at 150:05.
"I didn't see it at all," Hasek said. "I just felt the puck on my catching glove."