Longtime Sabres beat writer Bill Hoppe of BuffaloHockeyBeat.com will be writing about Sabres prospects, the Rochester Americans and related topics this season.
Days before the Sabres began what would quickly become one of the most memorable Stanley Cup playoff runs in franchise history, they added depth to their blue line.
On April 20, 2006, the Sabres recalled Doug Janik to practice as their eighth defensemen after the Rochester Americans’ season ended.
Only long-established Sabres fans probably knew much about Janik, who will be inducted into the Amerks Hall of Fame on Friday along with forward Steve Langdon.
At that point, five seasons into his pro career, the former second-round pick had only played 10 NHL games, the last coming more than two years earlier.
But 32 days after getting summoned, a stunning run of injuries forced Janik into regular duty during the Eastern Conference final.
Then, in Game 7 against the Carolina Hurricanes, Janik scored a critical goal – his first in the NHL – in his last appearance with the Sabres.
“Scored a huge goal,” said former Sabres defenseman Nathan Paetsch. “I mean, if we had won that game, it probably would’ve been one of the biggest goals in franchise history.”
A nostalgic-sounding Janik kept rattling off names during a phone conversation earlier this week.
“Chris Drury, Danny Briere, Mike Grier,” said Janik, who’s in his third season as an assistant coach with his hometown Springfield Thunderbirds, the Amerks’ opponent Friday.
Those players, of course, comprised some of the Sabres’ veteran core in 2005-06. Janik grew up and developed with the younger group – Ryan Miller, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek and others – that spent time together in Rochester.
“Amazing guy, well-loved by his teammates, tough player,” Briere said. “He was one of those sandpaper guys that brings a lot of intangibles to the table.”
Some old friends from those days have reached out to Janik, who played five seasons and 396 games with the Amerks, to congratulate him on his induction.
“All of us talk about how that’s some of the funnest times we’ve had in our lives playing hockey,” Janik said of his time in Rochester. “We were all young kids who had come in within one, two, three years of each other, kind of grew up together as people, young professionals.
“You remember the playoff runs, stuff like that. But more you remember the time in the locker room. I don’t think we had a practice day all year where somebody wasn’t playing a practical joke on someone.”
The closeness that group developed transferred to Buffalo, where the upstart Sabres roared out of the lockout in 2005, morphing into one of the NHL’s slickest teams.
The genesis of the 2006 Cup run started years earlier in Rochester. By late in the 2002-03 season, Janik said he knew the Sabres possessed a special bunch in the AHL.
In 2003-04, the Amerks reached the Western Conference final.
“That year and that playoff run, a lot of us really grew up as hockey players,” Janik said.
A year later during the NHL lockout, a loaded Amerks squad earned a league-high 112 points and won a playoff round.
“Guys were playing a lot of minutes, where … had they been up in the NHL, they wouldn’t have been playing as big of a role,” Janik said.
But when many of those players graduated when the NHL resumed play in 2005, Janik stayed in Rochester.
Dmitri Kalinin left the blue line first, suffering a season-ending ankle injury two games into the Sabres’ second-round series against the Ottawa Senators.
Rory Fitzpatrick slid into the lineup, leaving Janik as the top spare.
Sabres defensemen kept dropping at an alarming rate. After Teppo Numminen suffered a hip flexor in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final, Janik played his first NHL game since Feb. 18, 2004.
Henrik Tallinder broke an arm the next game, pressing Jeff Jillson, who had played two regular-season NHL contests, into action.
“There was a group of us that put a lot of work in so that if we did have to step in and play after not playing for a few weeks, our conditioning was there, we were game sharp,” Janik said. “It’s just a matter of being mentally tough, having some confidence, belief in yourself that you could go in and play at that level.”
Janik, meanwhile, was forming a solid tandem with Fitzpatrick as the heated series progressed.
“I remember how well those guys coming up were playing and helping us out,” Briere said of the newcomers. “I mean, we’re in the conference final and they’re still giving us a chance. … You got to tip your hat for them to be ready to play in that situation after barely playing during the regular season with the big team. That was very impressive.”
Then, the day after the Sabres’ thrilling 2-1 overtime victory pushed the conference final back to Carolina for a decisive Game 7, word began spreading Jay McKee had suffered an infection in his leg, leaving Brian Campbell and Toni Lydman as the only healthy regulars.
Paetsch, who had one game of NHL experience, would have to dress. The neophyte had been rehabbing from a high ankle sprain and hadn’t played in 62 days.
“It was bizarre, just one after another,” Paetsch said of the injuries.
Janik still vividly remembers the goal he scored with a trip to the Stanley Cup final on the line on June 1, 2006, in the raucous RBC Center.
With the Sabres trailing 1-0 late in the second period, Jochen Hecht won an offensive-zone draw in the right circle on a four-on-four. Ales Kotalik backhanded the puck to Janik, who quickly unleashed a slap shot at the near point.
A screened Cam Ward tried to spot the puck through traffic by looking to his right, but it sailed by his left side at 15:50, tying the game.
“I just kind of … took a slap shot and fortunately it went in,” Janik said.
Briere said he remembers laughing and “being ecstatic on the bench.”
“I still remember the way he picked up the puck and put it on net from the blue line,” Briere said. “I … thought that was a big-time play to come up like that.”
Four minutes later, Hecht put the Sabres up 2-1.
The rest of the story is well-known. The Sabres blew the lead, allowing three third-period goals and missing out on a date with the Edmonton Oilers, who would lose to the Hurricanes in seven games.
If the Sabres had triumphed, Janik’s goal, one of four he scored over 196 NHL appearances, would probably be famous.
“It was a heck of a first goal,” said Janik, who signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning weeks later. “It’s almost bittersweet because it’s your first NHL goal, but you’re one game away from the Stanley Cup finals and you don’t get there. I think kind of the disappointment in the loss outweighs anything.”