This is part of a series looking at Buffalo sports' greatest what-ifs. Today: What if 'No Goal' was really no goal?
In the tale-of-woe lexicon of Buffalo sports, it's known simply as No Goal. And what pain it still brings.
Three days after the Sabres lost Game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup final to the Dallas Stars, coach Lindy Ruff left fans packed into a Niagara Square rally with those two words as his final ones for the summer.
We all know what they mean.
Brett Hull's Cup-winning goal at 14:51 of the third overtime came with his foot clearly in the crease. It was clear to everyone watching that night and all season long that the play should not have counted.
But it did. The league produced a memo that night that reminded the teams that players could advance into the crease for a puck still in their possession and thus Hull was allowed to go get his own rebound and stuff it home.
"That was a goal," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman firmly said during an interview with The News last August in his New York office. "... People tend to forget that even if that wasn't a goal, it was Game 6. It doesn't mean Buffalo is winning Game 6 or Game 7, but the fact is it was a goal. There were interpretations sent out during the year. I understand people in Buffalo feel badly about it and have differing recollections in terms of what was right and wrong, but isn't that part of the magic and aura and lure of sports when things out of the ordinary take place?"
There was no magic at the time, of course. Ruff screamed at Bettman from the bench after seeing replays and the Sabres kept their dressing room closed for nearly a half hour until they got an explanation.
At nearly 2 a.m., the ice was littered with cameramen and people handing out Stanley Cup caps and T-shirts. Bettman was on the ice handing out the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Cup. There was no way to take it all back.
But what if No Goal really was .... no goal?
"We're in the locker room and all of a sudden somebody said, 'He was in the [bleeping] crease,' " Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek said in an interview with The News last year. "My first reaction was 'Let's get back on the ice.' But it's 2 o'clock in the morning and I look at everyone and it's like, 'I'm already out of my pants. It's impossible.'
"I said we should go back out there but then I realized, 'This is stupid.' My jersey is off, one of my pads is off. People would have to wait another 15 minutes to get dressed again. It was pretty clear that nothing can change at that time."
"I wish I had thought to throw one of my crutches at the refs," defenseman Rhett Warrener joked at '90s Night in KeyBank Center on Jan. 4, referring to the leg injury he suffered in Game 5. "It was disheartening.
"Whether you agreed with it or not, I thought it was a goofy rule to begin with but it was the rule. And it had been called all year. Everyone knew it wasn't a goal but everyone was on the ice. It was too late. You just live with it."
As 20 years have passed, the disputed goal is said to have cost the Sabres the Stanley Cup. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
It cost them a chance at the Cup, sure. Certainly the best one in franchise history. But only a chance, and with no guarantee of success.
Let's not forget the Sabres were losing the series, three games to two. They nearly won the game in the second overtime, but a James Patrick shot clanged off the crossbar behind Stars goalie Ed Belfour and harmlessly careened out of play.
So just imagine somebody wearing a white, black and red goathead became a hero after 2 a.m., sending the fans off to last call to celebrate a Game 6 victory.
Now it's off to Game 7 in Dallas on June 22, 1999, but the Sabres' offense is still firing blanks and playing a Dallas team that was 9-3 at home in the playoffs. Remember, Buffalo scored one goal in the final 207 minutes, 14 seconds of the series. One. It was Stu Barnes' snapshot that forged the 1-1 tie in Game 6 with 1:39 left in the second period.
The Sabres didn't score more than two goals in regulation in any game of the series (the 3-2 Game 1 victory was on a Jason Woolley overtime goal). They had a measly 30 shots on goal combined in splitting Games 3 and 4 at home, with each ending in a 2-1 score.
Belfour was outplaying Hasek in the series, blanking Buffalo in Game 5 and shutting out the Sabres for 130:44 until Barnes' goal in Game 6. Hasek had a few shaky moments in the series, capped by the terrible short side goal he allowed to Jere Lehtinen that put the Sabres behind after just 8:09 of Game 6.
The Buffalo offense was toast much of the series. Barnes was the only player with more than one goal. Miroslav Satan, a 40-goal man in the regular season, didn't score in any of the six games.
Still, it would have come down to one game in Dallas' Reunion Arena. The Sabres won twice in each of their Cup final appearances and have never played a game in franchise history where a victory would give them the Cup.
They would have had that chance in a Game 7 that never came. Captain Michael Peca has always rued that lost opportunity.
"I thought we were a great team because a great team isn't always made up of great players," Peca said at '90s Night. "Look at the Rangers and Leafs through the '90s. Not the Cup year for the Rangers in '94. After that, they signed a lot of free agents and didn't achieve anything really. All that individual talent doesn't make a great team.
"Having a group of guys that cares about nothing more than the group success more than any individual, that's what a great team is. And that's what we were. Sure, we weren't loaded with individual talent except for maybe Dom. We were a great team because we bought in and had the same vision of what we wanted to do."
Hull has famously taunted Buffalo fans over the years about the goal. And in reality, it's a normal hockey play in most seasons. Just not in 1999.
"After that game, I was walking down the hallway,” Peca recalled. “He was doing an interview as I was walking down the hallway and I heard him. Basically, he said, ‘It’s a bad rule anyway.’ So, the whole premise is he acknowledged that the goal shouldn’t have counted, but it was a bad rule so it doesn’t matter anyway. Frustrating, to say the least.”