In a tightly contested series where every game was decided a goal, Saturday night's overtime thriller was a fitting conclusion. Rookie Jason Pominville
's shorthanded goal less than three minutes into the extra period not only gave Buffalo the 3-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators in Game Five, but also pushed the Sabres into the Eastern Conference Finals as the team won the best-of-seven series four games to one.
"I'm enjoying every minute of it," said Pominville concerning the excitement of scoring the series-clincher. "It's not everyday that you get to compete for the Stanley Cup and get as far as we are right now. I kind of pinch myself everyday."
With Jay McKee in the penalty box for tripping, Pominville drove past Daniel Alfredsson to the net, evaded Ray Emery's pokecheck and slipped the puck just inside the right post at 2:26 for the series-winning goal. The game marked the first time in NHL history a series has been decided by a shorthanded goal in overtime.
As the rookie was mobbed by his teammates on the ice, it was difficult not to think about the long road the winger has been forced to travel.
Just eight months have passed since Pominville - who leads all rookies in playoff scoring with five goals and eight points - was placed on waivers by Buffalo in early October and was left vulnerable to acquisition by any other NHL club.
"I don't think it's describable," said Pominville when asked about his journey. "Obviously, getting sent down was really disappointing, I thought I had a pretty good training camp. But it ended up working out fine."
He was recalled by Buffalo from Rochester for the November 4th game against Montreal, but was returned to the Amerks the very next day. Finally, he returned for good on November 26th and produced instantly, scoring 18 goals and 30 points in his next 56 games during the regular season.
"I went down with a good attitude, worked my way back up and stuck around," added Pominville. "I'm happy I wasn't picked up on waivers. I might not be where I am right now."
Following the game, no one seemed happier for the rookie's success than his coach.
"It starts with a guy like (Pominville) that came up, scored a lot of big goals for us and has battled hard throughout his career," said an ecstatic Lindy Ruff. "What a reward. My emotions for him are sky high."
Jubilation oozed from Buffalo's locker room as the team advanced to its first Conference Finals since its Stanley Cup run in 1999. The Sabres will meet the eventual winner of the other Eastern Conference semifinal series between the New Jersey Devils and Carolina Hurricanes. Carolina currently leads the series three games to one.
"Every game (in the Ottawa series) was tight. Every game could have gone either way," Ruff said. "There wasn't a lot of relaxation behind the bench, but when that goal went in, all that pent up tension was gone in about 30 seconds."
When asked what the difference between this team and the squad that made it two the finals seven years ago was, Ruff pointed to one factor: scoring depth.
"You look at the number of goals we scored this year in the regular season and playoffs. We always found a way to score enough goals to win even if when gave up some goals up," Ruff said. "We're deeper on four lines when it comes to scoring."
"In 1999, we had a checking line and played that shift in and shift out, and Dominik Hasek was Dominik Hasek."
Henrik Tallinder scored his first goal of the postseason just 33 seconds into the game to give Buffalo the 1-0 lead.
Collecting a loose puck along the left boards, the defenseman spun and smoked a slapshot that beat Emery over the netminder's right shoulder.
Following Rory Fitzpatrick's high-sticking penalty with Buffalo already a man short, Ottawa tied the game on the ensuing two-man advantage when Daniel Alfredsson fired from the high slot through traffic at 10:26 to make the score 1-1.
Chris Drury drove to the net unmolested - Chris Phillips had backed away to take away the passing lane to the backdoor - stickhandled into the slot, and slipped the puck inside the right post to give Buffalo the 2-1 lead at 7:56 of the second.
Brian Pothier's slapshot from the left point tied the game, 2-2, with six minutes remaining in the second.
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Quotes courtesy of WGR 550-AM, the official radio partner of the Buffalo Sabres.