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Approaching 1,000 games, Jason Pominville still big contributor for Sabres

Welcome to a big week for Jason Pominville.

The Buffalo Sabres have four games in the next six days, starting with Tuesday night's visit to KeyBank Center by the Calgary Flames. And Pominville will hit a major milestone when he plays his 1,000th career NHL game Thursday night in Ottawa.

At 35, the winger is the elder statesman of the Sabres and one of the most respected players in franchise history. It's a long way from October 2005, when the 22-year-old was on waivers so the Sabres could get him back to Rochester.

Just imagine if Pominville had been claimed and gone somewhere else. No Population. No captaincy. No "scary good" overtime goal to go down in Sabres lore.

"I was disappointed but I kind of figured I wasn't getting taken," Pominville said Monday when asked to reflect on those days. "There's not a lot of guys at training camp that get taken. Most teams know that they think they have what it takes. There's not a lot of injuries. Their teams are built and they have the rosters from the summer.

"I knew I could play. I just had to get that opportunity. I think I was just ready to play when I got the chance. Sometimes you play and you're probably not ready and forced into position. But when I arrived, I was ready to play."

Sure was. Pominville had 19 goals in 18 games at Rochester before getting the call to the NHL for good. It's been quite a career. He just went over 700 NHL points and is a seven-time 20-goal scorer in the league, with six of those seasons coming in Buffalo. His next point will make him just the 10th Sabres player with 500.

And, of course, there's The Goal. Not many players have one goal their career is immediately associated with. Pominville certainly does.

It came in overtime in Game 5 of the 2006 Eastern Conference semifinals in Ottawa. The Sabres were leading the series, three games to one, when coach Lindy Ruff sent out fellow ruffians Pominville and Derek Roy to kill a Jay McKee penalty in overtime.

"I'm a rookie. Roysie is a rookie. And Lindy trusts both of us to go out there in the D zone on the PK," Pominville said. "We're able to get the puck, I put my head up and I see a forward and a 'D.' ... When you're killing penalties, most times you don't go for it – especially in the playoffs in overtime. I don't know why I went for it."

Mike Harrington: If it's the last ride, Pominville is determined to enjoy it

Perhaps, it was suggested, he was being an overzealous rookie.

"Exactly. Probably, now that you think about it," he said with a laugh.

It was the right call. Pominville went for it when he saw Daniel Alfredsson back, curled past the Ottawa forward and stuffed the puck around goaltender Ray Emery. It was the first series-clinching short-handed goal in NHL history.

"I kind of went blank after that until I saw Jay McKee hopping out of the penalty box and the whole team jumping together," Pominville said. "It was pretty cool. You're just going out there and making a hockey play, a hockey read that you see. Now with a step back, you realize how big a goal it was for the team and the organization."

Pominville was also quick to credit play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret for helping the goal stand the test of time with his cries of, "Now do you believe? Now do you believe? These guys are good. Scary good."

"Every time I have a chance to see it, I still get chills hearing RJ's call," he said. "It was a pretty special moment."

Pominville will become the 326th player in NHL history to hit 1,000 games. Tuesday's game will be No. 672 with the Sabres and he played 327 with Minnesota from 2013-17 before being reacquired by Buffalo in July 2017.

"Pommer is just a true pro," said coach Phil Housley. "He comes to the rink, he's focused, he's prepared. Just the way he approaches everything that he does, whether it's a practice or a game, he says a lot of things where guys really respect what he has to say. He's represented this organization as a class act."

Pominville was drafted at No. 55 overall in 2001 and the only players from that draft with more career points are the top two picks, Dallas' Jason Spezza and Los Angeles' Ilya Kovalchuk.

Pominville has five goals and nine points in 11 games this season and has ascended to a top-line wing role after playing a key spot on the team's fourth line with Evan Rodrigues and Zemgus Girgensons.

Housley wondered about breaking up the line because it was creating time in the offensive zone but remembered some chemistry Pominville had at the start of last season with Jack Eichel, so he reunited Pominville with Eichel and added Jeff Skinner to what's become an elite top line.

The Sabres are a building franchise trying to crack the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Pominville fondly remembers the days of 2006 and 2007, when the city was abuzz for weeks during the postseason runs. He'd love to get one more chance.

"My first two years, we're there back to back and you're like, 'Wow, this is cool. We're going to be there a lot,' " he said. "Then you realize there's a business side of it. ... You need to have your good pieces. I think this team is getting there and it should be nice."

Pominville said his wife is quietly planning a gathering of family and friends for the Montreal native as he plays in Game 1,000 Thursday night.

"It will be a nice week for sure. Time goes by fast," he said. "I still remember my first call-up in Washington, playing my first game [in 2004]. You dream your whole life of having a chance to play one day. Being able to stick around and play that many games is definitely overwhelming. A lot of good memories, ups and downs, good stories, was able to meet some great people and meet some great friends along the way."

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