If Game Four didn't completely shake the faith, Game Five gave Sabres fans a brief glimpse of hope.
And then Cory Stillman shattered it.
The doom and gloom has set in over Western New York once again because Buffalo is on the brink of elimination, down 3-2 in the best of seven series.
The Sabres yielded a 3-1 lead in Game Five, but then held the Hurricanes to just one shot over the the final 30 minutes, even with two Carolina power plays mixed in. Buffalo even started overtime with 1:19 left on a power play. But then the signs started coming. Cam Ward stoned a point-blank opportunity by Jochen Hecht. And then JP Dumont put a quick hook on Matt Cullen, was whistled off to the penalty box, and saw a nightmare unfold in front of the Buffalo net.
It kind of reminded me of Mario Lemieux's goal with 1:18 left in Game Six, Eastern Conference Semifinals, against Buffalo in 2001. Remember the one -- where the puck bounced straight up in the air, and then right to Lemieux's stick, and then found the twine -- all before defenseman Rhett Warrener or goaltender Dominik Hasek flinched. This time, Cullen's point shot ricocheted off the back boards right to Stillman, who snuck a shot between Ryan Miller's legs. Toni Lydman and Jay McKee could only stand in disbelief.
And while many in WNY are ready to write the Sabres off, especially since it looks like Teppo Numminen will not be returning (along with Henrik Tallinder, Dmitri Kalinin and Tim Connolly), I'm going to tell you that it's not over.
This isn't me trying to put a rosy spin on the whole thing. I can get pretty negative about any hockey team (ask my fellow Michigan season ticketholders). But the 2005-2006 Sabres has showed me how to believe again. Here's five reasons why Buffalo will be going back to Carolina for Game Seven:
1) Ryan Miller and The Big Game -- Miller was spectacular at times in both the Philadelphia and Ottawa series. He was a difference-making, game-stealing goaltender. He hasn't been at all in the Carolina series. Sure, maybe that's why I should stop the crazy wishing/praying/hoping right now. But Miller is the real thing. He's shown it over and over again this year. And I know he has it in him to come up with a big game for his "boys."
2) Chris Drury -- This guy is a winner. It may sound like a broken record by now, but this guy isn't shy to the big game either. He scored the first goal in the last game with the bench reeling after Game Four. His leadership is enough to get the Sabres over the hump. No player on either team can match his credentials for this situation.
3) The seventh man -- HSBC Arena will give the Sabres an advantage. This won't just be any home rink in the NHL Playoffs. The fans know what this team has done all year, and while they needed a day to recover after Game Five, by the time the puck drops, it'll be pom-pon waving, "Let's Go Buffalo" shouting, "Street Fighting Man" blasting-from-the-speakers hysteria. They're going to obliterate the decibel level at the RBC Center. The players will feed off it.
4) Carolina's goalie carousel will falter -- Cam Ward. Then Martin Gerber. Then Cam Ward. Yes, Peter Laviolette's charade may have worked for a game or two. But Gerber storming off the ice and not returning to the bench DOES mean something to the team. And subconsciously Ward must be thinking that he can be pulled again at any time. Buffalo can beat either goalie. This point also goes in tandem with reason one (Miller is going to rock!).
5) The unknown hero will come through -- The Sabres aren't about names. They haven't been about one line all season. And the playoffs have been no different. Daniel Briere, Tim Connolly, Chris Drury, JP Dumont, Jochen Hecht, Jay McKee, Ales Kotalik (3), and Jason Pominville have all notched game-winners. I can't give you a name, but one of these guys (or another) is going to shine tomorrow. Because that's how it's always been.
I like what Miller told Tim Graham of The Buffalo News:
' "They got the win tonight, but I don't think they should feel too secure," Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said before trying to lighten the mood. "We just want to make it interesting. It's a better story that way, right?" '
And this Sabres team is ready to write it.