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Sabres of the 2000s keep their hopes up for Blue and Gold in the 2020s

Mike Harrington

No decade in Buffalo Sabres history had such wild swings of emotion as the 2000s. When former owner Tom Golisano and a couple of dozen ex-players gathered in town this week, they were largely celebrating the near misses of the Stanley Cup runs in 2006 and 2007.

How long ago they seem.

The Sabres currently own the longest playoff drought in the NHL, dating to 2011, and have not won a series since they beat the New York Rangers in the second round in the spring of '07. The last appearance in the playoffs was a seven-game defeat to Philadelphia in 2011, just more than two months after Terry Pegula took ownership of the team. It was a series in which the Flyers' best player was former Buffalo captain Daniel Briere.

"That was the last playoff round for the Sabres? Wow, I knew the the last few years have been tough. I didn't realize that was the last time," Briere, now vice president of the ECHL's Maine Mariners, said here Thursday night. "It's hard to imagine almost. I look at their team and there's a great base there to have a special team. I don't want to speculate what needs to be done. That's not my job. But you look at the top-end players that they have and there's definitely a recipe to have a great team here."

"I'm a little disappointed but I feel bad for Terry because I know how much it means to him," said Golisano, who still watches most every game on television. "And obviously to the coaches and the players. So I'm rooting for him. I wish they could do better."

[Related: Tom Golisano's busy week: a book, a homecoming, an ovation]

Much like current fans, everyone associated with the 2000s is hopeful about the Sabres of the 2020s. The 2010s, of course, were mostly a washout as the team has failed to reach 90 points since that 2011 run to the postseason.

"It's a sport where it is cyclical. You see what happened with Chicago and LA," said ex-Buffalo center Paul Gaustad, referring to former Cup champions who have now fallen on hard times. "There's some luck to it for sure with draft picks because they don't always work out. It's not an exact science. It takes time, vision, trust. I know it's been a long process.

"It takes time and I know it's been a while. Buffalo has been waiting, but it takes time. You talk about us in '05-06, well, you think about '02-03, '03-04, the lockout. It's not good years there, not pretty. But there have been reloads here. I believe in Jason Botterill. He's an extremely smart hockey person. He's earned the right to be in the position he's in the NHL."

Gaustad said he's impressed by the work and mental fortitude of coach Ralph Krueger and has heard great things about the first-year coach from goaltender and former Nashville teammate Carter Hutton. And Gaustad said all the alums believe in the burgeoning star power of current captain Jack Eichel.

"I don't know if we've had a guy like that in Buffalo in a long time," Gaustad said. "Danny and 'Dru' (Briere and Chris Drury) were great players, but Jack is an elite, elite player. That's what you build around and I remain excited for this because of that."

Briere said the Sabres benefited from many of their players staying together in Rochester during the '04-05 lockout season and being of similar ages.

"You hope that your players kind of grow and come up with their best years all at the same time," Briere said. "A salary cap era, that's a little bit of what happens now. The best team, you have to have your core and your depth players have their best year all together.

"This is one of the best places to play and have everybody behind you. I hope they get to feel it, with what's going on with the Bills and see how passionate the fans are with their team. If they get to be a team that contends again, I know the fan base will be ecstatic and they'll be there for them. That relationship is extremely special."

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Buffalo Sabres alumnus Paul Gaustad prior to the Sabres playing the Columbus Blue Jackets at KeyBank Center on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

The noise

The Sabres of the 2000s had strong leadership in coach Lindy Ruff and general manager Darcy Regier, rock-solid goaltending from Ryan Miller and all sorts of options on offense and defense. What they also developed was a visceral connection between the players and the fans that is still a talking point today. The camera shots from the Party in the Plaza, when games going on inside the building were shown outside to thousands of fans, became staples of the telecasts.

One moment stands out. It came in Game 6 of the 2006 East final against Carolina, when Briere's overtime goal gave the Sabres a 2-1 win and sent the series to its ill-fated showdown in Raleigh.

The fans knew it might be the last home game of the season and they partied in the seats not wanting to leave but hoping to return the next week for the Cup final against Edmonton. Eventually, they moved to the arena's giant atrium, roaring and chanting their way down the escalators and the staircases – just on the other side of the wall from where the team's old changing room was.

"People hanging out in the atrium in the front. Nobody wanted to leave," Briere said. "That's my greatest memory of the Sabres fan base."

"I remember that vividly," defenseman Brian Campbell said. "We were all in the change room asking, " 'What is that sound?' It was amazing. We all stood around and were quiet for a second asking what is that? We all figured out it was the fans in the atrium going crazy. One of those stop-in-time kind of things."

[Related: Would Sabres have won Cup in 2006 with a healthy Tim Connolly?]

Managing partner Larry Quinn spearheaded construction and design of the arena in the mid-'90s and foreshadowed the atrium becoming the gathering place for celebrations someday. But even Quinn was blown away on this night.

"The night Briere scored the OT goal in Game 6, I went downstairs and that wall was visibly moving by 8 or 9 inches," Quinn said. "We were all looking at it going, 'Oh my God.' "

In those times, the players were like rock stars in town. And it wasn't hard to find them rocking hard some nights on Chippewa or Franklin streets, or on Elmwood Avenue.

"We embraced the fans, had a good group of guys that knew the fans were important to us. It was fun," Campbell said. "You wanted to have a beer with a fan or they wanted to have a beer, it was like, 'Hey, let's have a beer.' Obviously times have changed with the era of phones and camera phones, but that was a great era of time where you could still enjoy the moment and have fun with people."

"That's part of the reason why it was so cool playing here," Briere said. "People cared about their team. That side of it was really special. The bond we created with the fans, we kind of came out of nowhere coming out of the lockout. It was unexpected for the fans and they just ran with it."

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Former Buffalo Sabres owner Thomas Golisano and Larry Quinn on the ice during a pregame ceremony at KeyBank Center on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

A triumphant and troubling decade

So much more went on during those 10 years. Both triumph and troubles.

The Sabres started the decade strong with the afterglow of the trip to the No Goal Stanley Cup final of 1999. They were 78 seconds from the Eastern Conference final in 2001 but lost both Game 6 and Game 7 of the second-round series to Pittsburgh and it was five long years before they were back in the postseason.

And what a five years they were.

The team went bankrupt in the wake of the Rigas/Adelphia scandal, fell into NHL control and relocation seemed like a definite possibility until Golisano completed his purchase in 2003. And the entire league, of course, was shut down for the 2004-05 season due to the owners' lockout.

Coming out of the lockout, there were no expectations. But the team suddenly blossomed. The fans returned. The 2005-06 season went until June 1, all the way to Game 7 of the East final at Carolina. It's the one Buffalo team most everyone agrees probably should have won the Stanley Cup had injuries not gotten in the way.

"I always felt when I was traded, the first day I stepped off the plane, there was a special feeling around here," recalled Briere. "We had some great years and a special team there. We were so close to winning it all. Those things always stay with you."

"People predicted us last before the season and it was one of those things were we wouldn't accept it," added Gaustad, whom fans again serenaded with "Goooose" chants Thursday night. "We said, 'We won't accept it in this locker room. If you want to accept it, don't be here.' It was such a fun time in our lives, such a fun group. We all bought in."

The final blow, of course, was the leg infection that felled stalwart defenseman Jay McKee the night before Game 7 in Carolina. The Sabres had a 2-1 lead through two periods but lost, 4-2.

"That's sports. It sucks. All the teams go through it and get banged by it," Gaustad said. "It happens in Game 7 to us and I remember being on the plane and thinking, 'Where's Jay? He's going to miss the flight. We can't take off.' "

Winger J.P. Dumont says he's still upset about the team's near miss.

"I would have loved to go back there. Like Jay, make sure he washes his leg there or something so it doesn't get infected," Dumont joked. "All those big injuries for defensemen. I would love to see what would have happen. You don't want to have ifs. It was really tough to swallow."

Buffalo Sabres players Daniel Briere, Jason Pominville, Adam Mair and Maxim Afinogenov celebrate their win against the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference at HSBC Arena on Tuesday May 30, 2006. (John Hickey/News file photo)

The goals

Lots of memorable playoff overtime goals stand out in the 2000s. Stu Barnes went bar-down to beat Pittsburgh in Game 5 in 2001. There was Briere's heroics against Carolina, and the Maxim Afinogenov goal in 2007 against the New York Rangers after Drury's "Who else?" goal tied the game with 7.7 seconds left in regulation (Buffalo has just one playoff OT winner since then, by Tyler Ennis in Game 5 in 2011 in Philly).

The Sabres posted three of their four wins against Ottawa in 2006 after 60 minutes. Drury won Game 1, 7-6, with a goal after just 18 seconds, Dumont won Game 3 on what he called a "fluffer" and Pominville's Game 5 short-handed goal that won the series lives forever as one of the two or three most memorable goals in franchise history.

"I blacked out to be honest with you," Pominville said. "Jay McKee couldn't believe it. He was the first guy to me coming out of the penalty box. ... To score a goal of that magnitude you take a step back now and you realize how much that meant to the team and the organization and myself for my career. Definitely a proud moment."

Pominville is 37 now, and did not have a team to play for this year after the Sabres didn't re-sign him. He became a 30-goal scorer in the NHL but forever has this one moment.

"I still get talked about it quite a bit so I realize it now," he said. "When you're playing, you're in the moment and we were riding the wave. I was young, clueless, having fun and going with it."

Dumont said his goal still pumps him up if he watches it before men's beer league games at home in Nashville.

"I remember scoring and turning around and I see everybody charging at me," he said. "I did the half-running man I think to celebrate and Teppo Numminen was right there. I'm not going to lie about that one. It was definitely a fluffer. I knew where it was going. Everything happened quick."

More tough times

To many fans, of course, the decade is black-marked by July 1, 2007, the day that Briere and Chris Drury left via free agency after ownership made the decision to move on from Briere, only to see Drury leave too.

"It wasn't my decision. I had to move on unfortunately," said Briere, who led Philadelphia to a Cup final in 2010 and beat the Sabres in a seven-game first-round series in 2011. "It's just the way it was. It was the way it happened. I've moved on from that. There's no hard feelings. I thought I was going to be a Sabre for the rest of my career honestly. Things happen for a reason. It's done. We can't change anything about it."

The heart and soul of the Sabres was gone in one fell swoop and has never really returned. The Sabres have yet to win a playoff series since.

" 'Dru' would play in basically every situation," recalled Pominville. "Win faceoffs, PK, block shots and you're like, 'Man, if this guy's doing that I've got to do that.' Danny was maybe a little more quiet but every night found a way to be on board and score the big goal at the key time."

The Sabres missed the playoffs in 2008 and 2009, the latter miss coming on the final weekend of the season. They won the Northeast Division in 2010 and squeezed into the playoffs on the second-last day in 2011, losing in the first round both times.

"Danny and 'Dru' and others leaving made it difficult, especially with them being the leaders," Gaustad said. "We were still young and I don't know if we were quite ready. We were close, just not able to take a hold of it all. We were climbing that stepping stone and it was just a little too far for us to reach. But we fought those years."

The loss of the captains was impossible to overcome. Their acquisitions were pulled off by Regier in two of the best trades in franchise history. They were irreplaceable.

"Everyone grew up together and I think there's something to be said about that," said Angola native Patrick Kaleta, who made his NHL debut in 2007 during the game that led to the infamous brawl with the Senators. "You have a team built up with passion, with guys who would do anything for the logo. That mixture is a force to be reckoned with.

"You mix the highly skilled, the great goaltending and the sandpaper and that's a team. You grew up together, you go to bat for each other and it's a brotherhood that you hate losing so much that it's not acceptable."

That '06 team certainly hated losing. The group didn't get to the Cup final or win the whole thing. but it's remembered ultra-fondly, even as it sits as the greatest "what if" in franchise history and a dream for current fans that seems a long way away.

"Of course you wonder 'what if.' Anybody in sports wonders 'what if' every day of their lives probably," said Golisano, now 78. "I'm no exception and I'm sure (partners) Dan DiPofi and Larry Quinn felt the same way. It was just such an exciting time to see the crowds outside the arena, much less inside. It was just awesome. I think about it all the time."

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