April 3, 2006
by Brian Wheeler
For the first time since the 2000-01 season, the Buffalo Sabres will be playing hockey in late April. Needing just a point to secure their seat at the post-season table, Buffalo clinched a playoff berth with a 3-2 shootout victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre on Monday night.
"The way we have been playing lately, it feels good (to clinch a playoff spot)," said Dumont referring to the team dropping eight of their last ten games. "We should have been in this position probably a few weeks ago, but it's good for a team to go through some adversity. It's not going to be easy, but we have a team that can find success when we work hard for 60 minutes."
"It's a big achievement," added Daniel Briere. "At the beginning of the year, we were watching where supposed experts were ranking our team. Most of them had us at 13 or 14 in the Eastern Conference. From the start of the season, we never believed we were that low, and always thought we were a playoff team."
Not since Darius Kasparaitis' overtime winner for the Pittsburgh Penguins on May 10, 2001 has Buffalo seen post-season action. The Sabres fell six points short of the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference during the 2003-04 season.
"It was a relief to get that one point," said Sabres netminder Martin Biron. "Even though the last stretch was a bad one, the biggest stretch of the year is now coming up for us in three weeks."
In the shootout, Biron, who allowed three goals on six shots against Toronto on Saturday night, stopped all three Toronto shooters, while Maxim Afinogenov notched the game-winner on Buffalo's first attempt.
One-on-one with Leafs goaltender Jean-Sebastien Aubin, Afinogenov faked to the right and pulled the puck to his off-hand around the netminders' right pad.
"We played really well, especially after the loss on Saturday night to these guys," Dumont said. "We came out with a really good start and showed Toronto that we were ready to play. They had a few chances on the power play, but (Biron) made the big saves."
"Early in the game, we dominated," said Briere. "In a few parts of the second, we had a little bit of a letdown. Overall, we played a pretty solid game and were skating much better than we had last game."
Biron notched his 19th victory of the season and first shootout win of his career in stellar fashion, after making 31 saves – many of which were incredible - in regulation and overtime combined.
"We are a team that prides ourselves in giving up only two goals a game and not four or five," said Biron comparing Monday's game to Saturday night's 7-0 loss. "Tonight, we limited their chances in the first half of the game and it made everyone more comfortable. We've been playing really poorly in the first period over the last ten games, so to get a lead after the opening period was exactly what we had to do."
The longest tenured player on the team, Biron finished the game strong with 16 saves in the third period and overtime.
"There were a few (saves) that I was definitely lucky with," joked Biron. "But you battle hard, and sometimes the shot hits you and other times it doesn't." Derek Roy
the lone first period goal for either team and Afinogenov increased Buffalo's lead to a pair with his 20th goal of the season midway through the second.
The similarities between the current Sabres and the team's last post-season squad can be seen by simply looking at the statistics. Buffalo's five players at or above the 20-goal plateau are the most the team has boasted since the 2000-01 season.
That year, five players on the team's final roster passed the mark, including Dumont, Donald Audette, Miroslav Satan, Steve Heinze, and Dave Andreychuk.
With seven games remaining in the 2005-06 regular season, the group of Sabres that possess a 20 or higher in the goals column of the statistics page is Afinogenov, Chris Drury, Thomas Vanek
, Ales Kotalik, and Daniel Briere.
Knocking on the door to enter the group are Dumont, Roy, Jason Pominville
and Jochen Hecht
, who each have 17 goals or more this season.
"We've said it all season long," said Dumont. "It's going to take 20 guys to win games. We have a team that is really focused on the four lines, six defensemen and goaltenders that can make the big save."
But the victory did come with a cost that cast a shadow over the thought of playoffs.
In retaliation for being laid out by Mike Grier, Darcy Tucker attempted to run Hecht and connected knee-to-knee with the Sabres forward, who returned to Buffalo's lineup on Monday for the first time in 10 games from a previous knee injury.
Following the game, an irate Lindy Ruff stated that Hecht could be out for weeks from the collision, and voiced his displeasure with Tucker and the questionable hit.
"(Tucker) couldn't take the hit that we gave him, so he knocks our guy out of the lineup for probably weeks," Ruff said. "I want him suspended and fined. I'll come to the hearing. I haven't called the league once this season. I'll call them 10 times tomorrow. If you go knee-on-knee and take a shot at a guy's head at the same time, you don't deserve to be in the game.
"We're going into the playoffs and you're going to take out one of our best players because you couldn't take a hit? That's a joke. That's an absolute joke is what that is."
Roy gave the Sabres the early lead with some quick hand work just four minutes into the game.
After Kotalik's one-timer from the slot hit the glass and rebounded to the right side of the net, the center pulled the loose puck from his forehand to backhand and chipped a shot over Jean-Sebastien Aubin's left pad as the goaltender was sliding to close the door at the left post at 4:01.
On the power play, Afingenov cut around Bryan McCabe just inside Toronto's blueline and fired from the right faceoff dot. Aubin made the save on the first shot but missed the second, a rocket one-timer into the top-right corner of the net at 10:22 of the second.
John Pohl cut Buffalo's lead to a goal with a fierce one-timer off Mats Sundin's centering pass from the right corner at 11:57.
With Hecht in the penalty box after the altercation with Tucker, Matt Stajan stuffed Alex Steen's rebound between Biron's left pad and the right post to tie the game 2-2 at 12:40 of the third.
In the shootout, Afinogenov scored on Buffalo's first attempt, while Briere was stuffed with Aubin's right pad and Tim Connolly's wristshot was stopped with a glove save. Biron stuffed both Sundin and Tucker's five-hole offerings, while spearing Alex Ponikarovsky's shot with a sprawling save and his right pad.
----------------------------------------------- SCORING REPORTS
| Super Stats
| Faceoff Comp
| Play By Play
| Shift Chart GAME BLOG:
1-0 (3:59): Ales Kotalik's one-timer from the slot hits the glass behind the net and rebounded to the right side of the net, where Derek Roy
chipped the loose puck over Jean-Sebastien Aubin's left pad. The goal is Roy's 17th of the season. Kotalik and Afinogenov get the helpers. Period 2
2-0 (10:22): On the power play, Maxim Afingenov cut around Bryan McCabe just inside Toronto's blueline and fired from the right faceoff dot. Aubin made the save on Afinogenov's first shot but missed the second when the forward one-timed the loose puck into the top-right corner of the net. The goal is Afinogenov's 10th with the man advantage and 20th of the season. Daniel Briere and Ales Kotalik get the helpers.
2-1 (11:57): John Pohl one-timed Mats Sundin's centering pass from the right corner for Toronto's first goal and his second of the season. The tally came on Toronto's third shot of the period. Sundin and Alex Ponikarovsky record the assists. Period 3
2-2 (12:40): With Jochen Hecht
in the penalty box, Matt Stajan stuffs Alex Steen's rebound between Biron's left pad and the right post to tie the game. The power-play goal is Stajan's 12th of the season. Steen and Jeff O'Neill get the assists. Overtime
No Scoring Shootout
Afinogenov - Fakes to forehand and pulls puck around Aubin's left pad 1-0
Sundin - Wristshot five-hole stopped 1-0
Briere - Drags puck to forehand, blocked with left pad 1-0
Tucker - Shot fake, Backhand five-hole stopped 1-0
Connolly - Quick wristshot into the glove 1-0
Ponikarovsky - Dekes to forehand but stuffed by Biron's right pad 1-0
Quotes coutresy of WGR 550-AM, the official radio partner of the Buffalo Sabres.