Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Greatest Game Ever Played- Round 2

Buffalo 7, Ottawa 6 (OT)

I wish I had set a tape.

Buffalo Sabres captain Chris Drury scored from Mike Grier at the 18-second mark of overtime to lift the Sabres to an unpredictable, wild 7-6 win over the stunned Ottawa Senators. Drury’s goal came on the heels of Tim Connolly’s tying goal with just 11 seconds left, turning topsy-turvy a game that seemed destined to go Ottawa’s way.

Yeah, I probably wouldn’t call this “The Greatest Game Ever Played” if Buffalo didn’t win, but I have my reasons. You see, the last time I declared “The Greatest Game Ever Played”- when Montreal Canadiens defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 6-5 in double overtime- it featured three thrilling comebacks: Carolina from 3-0, Montreal from 4-3, then Carolina from 5-4 then Montreal again scoring the game winner. Here, Buffalo came from behind after every Ottawa goal besides the first one, upon which the Senators came from behind after Grier opened the scoring 35 seconds in. It was the eighth straight game where Buffalo scored first- including their shutout win against Carolina that ended their regular season- but whereas against the Philadelphia Flyers the first goal would stand, it wouldn’t against Ottawa.

They were right. Three minutes in, Ottawa gets goals from Jason Spezza and Brian Smolinski to put Ottawa up 2-1, then, a minute later, Buffalo’s Teppo Numminem scored on the power play to knot the score at 2. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Bob Cole and Harry Neale were commenting about how the game featured four goals in under five minutes, setting up what many predicted as a high-scoring series. Then the defences clamped down and the score remained 2-2 after one.

The second period didn’t feature a fluke opening goal, but it did feature the prettiest, this one from Martin Havlat who deked out Ryan Miller, like he had done against Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender John Grahame in the first round, to put Ottawa up again 3-2. Moments later, while shorthanded, Connolly broke in on a two-on-one break with Jason Pominville, but Connolly elected to shoot it himself banging one in on the near post past a confused Ray Emery who should have had that post covered. At 4:15, though, Dany Heatley restored the Ottawa advantage at 4-3 on the power play with Pominville in the box for hooking, but only after Miller had stopped three Ottawa attempts on the doorstep. At that point, it looked like Ottawa would carry the lead into the second period, but then a streaking Derek Roy potted the tying goal with thirty seconds left in the second. The period ended 4-4, with each team scoring twice in each period.

The third was where the game really went wild. On the opening faceoff, Ottawa won it and sprung along Mike Fisher, who stuffed a rebound past Miller on what was a beautiful rush that caught Buffalo off guard to again give Ottawa a one-goal advantage at 5-4 just sixteen seconds in. Again, Ottawa looked like they would control the play, carrying the lead until Roy converted on a shorthanded two-on-one opportunity with a minute and a half left in the game to knot the game at 5. The Senators- still on the power play, something Cole reminded everyone watching at home on, promptly fired back on a goal on the doorstep from Smolinski, who rifled the puck in after a beautiful set-up from Daniel Alfredsson. Ottawa was up 6-5 now, and, as Smolinski’s confident, defiant celebratory stance suggested, looked as though they had won the game.

The Sabres had other ideas.

With just 10.7 seconds left and their net empty, Buffalo applied tons of pressure on Emery, with several shots before Connolly jammed the puck home during a mad scramble where Emery just had the bouncing puck on the reach of his stick but couldn’t get to it before Connolly got to it. The goal stunned the sellout crowd who were ready to celebrate a 1-0 series lead, sending a wild game into overtime at 6-6. That is when Buffalo took charge and took the game away from Ottawa.

The overtime period started innocently enough. The Sabres won the opening faceoff, dumped the puck in which the Senators defence got to easily. They passed it to Anton Volchenkov- who is probably lucky this was Game 1, not Game 7- who looked like he would pass it up ice for an Ottawa rush. Instead, he fanned on the puck, allowing Grier to pounce on it and feed it to a wide open Drury, who made no mistake on the shot. The result stunned the sellout crowd more than it already was, giving Buffalo an improbable 7-6 victory and a 1-0 series lead.

I couldn’t believe it. How Buffalo had won was unexplainable, since the Sabres were playing catch-up with an Ottawa team that clearly had more talent. The Senators out-shot the Sabres 33-23 and 20-12 after two, and were probably a few bad breaks from the series lead themselves. Still, Buffalo’s resilience paid off, much as how the Edmonton Oilers’ did against the Detroit Red Wings and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks’ did against the Calgary Flames. It went to show that what happened during the regular season- and, more importantly, talent- means nothing if you don’t use it. I’m not taking anything away from Buffalo- they are a very talented team- but Ottawa is over and above them. The Senators showed they were clearly stronger against the Lightning, but they’re now in danger of yet another early exit unless they can match their hearts- and wits- with their talent. Buffalo looked beatable, and pretty much only won because mentally they were better.

Either way, it looks like a fine series. Buffalo and Ottawa were primed to be THE series of the second round and it looks like it will be. After tonight, Buffalo may look like they’ll take it, but they have to remember they still have three games left to win. As for Ottawa, they have to show that they have as much heart as talent- otherwise, it’s another early trip to the golf course.