Anticipation was the feeling before the 2005/2006 NHL season. At long last, the lockout had ended and NHL hockey would bring with it a new identity.
With the NHL back, most fans were pleased just to see their teams hit the ice for the first time in what seemed like ages.
Different approaches were taken in preparation to the first year of post-lockout hockey. Some squads decided to make a big-splash signing, such as the Philadelphia Flyers by acquiring Peter Forsberg.
Others depended highly on their draft picks to begin the re-building process and ensure a rich future. It's amazing how far Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have brought their clubs, Pittsburgh and Washington respectively, out of the Eastern Conference basement.
The Buffalo Sabres were a huge question mark in early October, 2005. A team that was rescued from bankruptcy by Tom Golisano two years earlier in 2003 and hadn't reached the postseason since the departure of Dominik Hasek to Detroit in 2001.
Instead of searching for great talents to join the group, the Sabres picked up veteran defenders Teppo Numminen and Toni Lydman. Miroslav Satan and Alexei Zhitnik were both shipped to Long Island.
If anything, it appeared Buffalo had become a weaker squad.
There was a plan—take advantage of the NHL's new rules and play the game with tremendous speed.
And that they accomplished with a spread-out offense featuring Chris Drury, Daniel Briere, Maxim Afinogenov, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Ales Kotalik, J.P Dumont, Tim Connolly and Thomas Vanek.
Brian Campbell had his breakout season with 44 points from the blue line. Jay McKee was an unbelievable shot blocker throughout the season.
Most importantly, the goaltending issues were history with Ryan Miller and Martin Biron—the best one-two goaltending punch in the league.
Buffalo finished the season with a 52-24-6 record, good for 110 points and fourth place in the Eastern playoff tree. After disposing of Philadelphia in six games, the Sabres faced a massive challenge in the second round.
It was an Ottawa Senators team which had scored the most goals during the season, finished first in the East, and won five of eight meetings with Buffalo.
The hockey world was in for a great treat in game one on May 5, 2006.
The puck dropped at Scotiabank Place, the Senators home inKanata, and we were under way.
Taking the crowd out of the game is always the first goal in a road contest. Derek Roy picked up a loose puck inside Senators territory, went left towards the net, and fed Mike Grier on the right side for an open net score. Ottawa's Wade Redden and Ray Emery could only watch in shock.
Silence spread throughout the arena just 35 seconds into the game.
Less than three minutes later, Ottawa scored two goals 15 seconds apart. First, Jason Spezza took a great cross-ice pass from Dany Heatley to score in close; then Bryan Smolinski put away a rebound from an Anton Volchenkov point shot.
All of a sudden the Senators had woken up and the fans had followed.
Just before the 13 minute mark of the first, Numminen unleashed a slapshot on the power play to even the game at two all. Next, Martin Havlat beat Miller with a backhand on a breakaway less than two minutes into the second period.
Anyone who doesn't believe Tim Connolly can be a game breaker needs to watch the highlights from this game.
A stick-handling magician with the puck, Connolly can be a premier play maker when healthy.
Nonetheless, Ottawa had a man-advantage when Connolly picked up a loose puck. He faked out Daniel Alfredsson, who was playing at the point for the power play, and sent him falling to the ice.
In doing so, he created a two-on-one with Paul Gaustad.
From there, nothing but brilliance.
Connolly seemed to loose the puck from the poke-check of the defender, but managed to drag it under an outstretched stick and squeeze it between Emery and the post on the backhand.
Heatley restored the lead with a rebound goal on a power-play 46 seconds later.
Goals would continue accumulating for both sides. Roy scored a late goal with 30 seconds remaining. Grier entered the zone, fed Henrik Tallinder, who backhanded a pass to Roy for the finish.
Mike Fisher scored 16 seconds into the third with Miller out of position. A fortunate bounce and Ottawa led once again.
Fast forward to the last two minutes of regulation and the crowd's blood pressure began to rise.
Andrei Meszaros had pinched in on the power-play and missed the puck. Connolly and Roy came out with a two-on-one and it was played to perfection.
Connolly waited for Redden to attempt a stick-check, pulled puck back, and fed Roy for an empty net goal.
Shorthanded, Buffalo had equalized. Smolinski restored the lead just 24 seconds later off a great feed from Alfredsson. 1:13 remained on the clock and Senators fans had already begun celebrating.
As the new-style NHL has taught us, no lead is safe.
Buffalo dumped the puck in towards Emery with 20 seconds remaining. The puck came out from behind the net, and the Senator goaltender missed the chance to cover it.
In the right position, Connolly backhanded the puck top shelf and jumped in the air to celebrate. A 6-6 tie with 10.7 seconds on the clock. Overtime would follow and the first shot would likely win the game.
Surely enough, Volchenkov fumbled the puck on his end, and Grier picked it up creating a mini two-on-one with Drury. Before the second defender could return, Drury received the pass, and wristed the game winner by Emery's blocker side.
Buffalo won game one 7-6 by erasing five one-goal leads and never quitting.
This match would prove to be the indicator of the series as the Sabres disposed the Senators in five games. This kind of never-say-die attitude was displayed the entire season with the Sabres.
Many don't like high scoring matches, but they are fun to see every now and then. I don't know if I've ever experienced a more exciting NHL game since the lockout. Being a Sabres fan made it all the more special.
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