It may have started with silence, but it ended in chaos.
I’ve never heard a building so quiet for so long. It was clear that everyone was waiting for that moment of silence, and for Doug Allen to knock the anthems out of the park. He did, and we were ready for hockey tonight. There was some talk of canceling this game, but I never really thought it would happen. People needed this, and it was clear from the beginning that the Sabres were ready to play.
Buffalo came out hard, and some good work on the boards set up Rivet on the point for the first goal. One of the big criticisms of the Sabres was that they weren’t ready to shoot from the point on Wednesday, but they were ready to fire tonight. Mair is cutting across to get in front, and it’s 1-0 thanks to a nice tip just seven minutes in.
You knew the Sabres were playing a different game when they scored on the power play. Against Ottawa it looked like Stafford just wasn’t comfortable standing in front. Tonight things were different, and he set up a perfect screen on Jaro’s rocket from the point. It trickles in, and the Sabres have a two goal lead on the best team in hockey.
San Jose just didn’t look themselves in the first, and it was glaringly obvious when Joe Thornton gives the puck away at center ice. Roy makes a good play to get it to Stafford, and the return pass down the wing is gunned far corner. 3-0. Chaos. It was the perfect start to a game so many needed, and HSBC Arena was buzzing. It wasn’t a perfect period, with Marleau getting a power play goal near the end; but it was exactly the start this team needed.
The second was fairly uneventful, with not much happening until about eight minutes in. Blake goes off for tripping, and off the faceoff Kotalik puts a rocket past Nabokov. Again, Ales was ready to shoot right away, and Ellis puts a nice screen in front before he can be moved by the defense. These were things they just weren’t doing on Wednesday, but the power play was rolling because of it tonight.
But here’s where San Jose shows you why they’re going to win the President’s Trophy. Just over a minute later Joe Thornton turns nothing into a goal, making a nice pass to Marleau in front for his second of the night. Did I mention Marleau was an absolute steal in most fantasy drafts? Draft position in three of my leagues this year? 107, 161, and 32th overall. (The 107 and 161 was me.) 56 points (27+29) in 52 games? Nice.
The Sharks dominated play in the second, putting up 17 shots and just out-hustling the Sabres. Mike Grier even got a breakaway, but if you know your Sabres hockey you know Mike Grier averages 12 breakaways a year and never scores. Miller stones him, but the pressure was still on. You started to wonder if this team would be able to hold on, which was justified when San Jose got another late-period goal, this time from Dan Boyle. Thornton fed him with a great pass, and the defenseman makes a fantastic play to blow past Paille and stiff arm Lydman. It’s a goal most defenseman can’t score, and that’s why he makes $6.667 million for the next five years.
So there it was, a one goal game with just twenty minutes to play. You could hear the atmosphere in the building change, and during that intermission people weren’t as confident anymore. Conversation around me shifted from hockey to other things, and we all know what the most newsworthy conversation was. During the game you noticed a few empty seats, and you had to wonder why they weren’t filled. Even at a hockey game, the reality of life can’t be lost. Forgotten maybe, but it’s always there.
When the third started it was obvious the Sabres were sitting back a bit. Call it weariness from a long day, or maybe just a bad habit, but it cost them. San Jose is too good to let back into a game, and six minutes in Setoguchi ties the game. It was a minor disaster defensively, with Sekera losing his stick, Numminen retrieving it for him, and no one on the point to disrupt the one timer. The penalty called may have been garbage (Thornton high sticked his own man), but the defense that resulted deserved to be scored on. Not a good start, and suddenly this game is not so perfect anymore.
The third period was interesting because it seemed to slow down for both teams. In the end only 11 total shots, and the road schedule for the Sharks was pretty evident when all was said and done. San Jose was outworking the Sabres all over the ice, but Buffalo was hanging on thanks to some big saves from Miller. You had to wonder which team would crack first, and it was Buffalo that blinked, with the defense costing them once again.
Your thoughts on the Pavelski goal depends on which team you root for. If you’re a Sabres fan, you hate everything about it. An unassisted goal means your team messed up, and clearly Butler misplays the puck and misses the man, allowing Pavelski to get a shot off while surrounded by blue sweaters. However, if you’re a Sharks fan you love the individual effort and the moves he puts on. Put it this way: if Tim Connolly scores that goal you’re raving for days, but since it was Pavelski you only shake your head.
I’ll be honest, I thought they were going to come back. With so much time left, you knew the crowd would respond and the Sabres would pick it up. San Jose did a great job breaking things up in the neutral zone, and they showed they know how to close games out. When you lose seven games all season you know a thing or two about finishing, and the Sharks were killing clock with ease. Doubt replaced confidence, and as a scattered few headed for the exits I wondered what happened to this game.
With a minute left things got a bit interesting. Buffalo pulled the goalie and worked hard on the last shift, keeping it in a few times and winning some battles along the wall. San Jose was content to keep it there, though, and time was running out. San Jose just knows exactly what to do here, and it was a case of the best team in the league coming through in the end.
With about ten seconds left and the puck in the far corner, I thought to myself, “it was too perfect.” Sometimes things just don’t work out, and maybe that first period would be enough to take away from a game like this. Then somehow it slips off Pominville’s stick and glides into the slot. Rivet winds up with six seconds left…
The picture says it all. Forget about the watermark and look at Rivet’s face. Can you imagine getting ready to take that shot? What’s going through his head? The trade that moved his family across the country? Two points in a tough playoff race? The plane crash and everything that happened earlier that day? July 4th? The hopes of an entire community? The human brain is an amazing thing, and it’s entirely possible that all of that flashed across his mind in under a second. Or maybe it was just, “Please, please get through.” Doesn’t matter. Tie game.
As a fan you develop specific levels of crowd noise. Each game registers a certain position, and the rest are therefore judged by comparison forevermore. Dave asked how loud it was there after that goal, and I sent back “Ottawa Brawl Game loud.” That’s pretty far up there, and for good reason. The place absolutely erupted, and Pominville gets his first goal since New Year’s Day.
Overtime had its moments, but you knew all along this was headed to a shootout. Miller needed to redeem himself, and he would get a chance against a workhorse of a goaltender. The usual suspects were up for the Sabres, but after three shooters each it was still scoreless. Here comes Jason Pominville, and here comes the crowd again. Our favorite quote puts on a great move, and suddenly we’re on the brink.
But here comes Marleau. Did I mention he’s been great this year? He makes a nice move to keep things going, and Derek Roy is up next. There’s no way he scores, right? That was their chance, and they’ve gotten enough chances tonight. No way Roy does the same move on Nabokov.
Great move. Just make one save. One save.
You know what happens next. The crowd explodes, the Sabres spill onto the ice, and the closing credits roll. The Sabres just took down the best team in hockey and made an entire region smile, if only for a brief moment. Afterwards the players and coaches would say that it’s only a game, but we all know it was about much more than that just then.
Tonight we saw the power of sports once again. It didn’t make everything better, and it didn’t solve the world’s problems in one fell swoop. But in the time it took Craig Rivet to wind up and take that shot, seven tenths of a second, it made everything disappear. When that fog horn blasted after Miller’s final save, hockey was bigger than everything.
The Buffalo Sabres will never replace a loved one, but for a millisecond tonight it felt like they cured cancer, fixed the economy, and gave everyone a big hug. In the end it will go down in the record books as just another win, but we all know it was more than that. It was everything this city needed, and a welcome distraction from a harsh reality.
It was perfect.