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Sabres Central

Sabres survive Wild Start, stay unbeaten at home
By Rick Anderson
November 18, 2000

The Buffalo Sabres came dangerously close to losing their first game at home to the expansion Minnesota Wild Friday night. It took a come from behind effort with goals by Dennis Hamel and Richard Smehlik for the Sabres to remain unbeaten at home as they beat the Wild 3-1.

Curtis Brown Minnesota's Jim Dowd and Wild defenseman Filip Kuba chase after the puck in the first period.
[AP Photo/Don Heupel

The Wild struck first in the opening period, and although the Sabres were outshooting Minnesota 21-16 after 2, it appeared as if they would not be able to score on Wild goalie Jamie McLennan. But Hamel's goal led to explosion of three (and one disallowed) goal and another Sabres victory.

The Beast of the East

Can you say first place? That's exactly where the Sabres find themselves after the Wild win in HSBC Arena Friday night. With Tampa Bay and Toronto skating to a 2-2 tie, the Sabres move one point in front of Toronto for first place overall in the Eastern Conference. The last time the Sabres were this high up in the stratosphere was after they beat the New Jersey Devils in the Meadowlands on December 26, 1998. From that point on, the Sabres nose-dived and just barely made the playoffs. However, they righted themselves quickly in the playoffs and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals. That's the same position the Sabres want to find themselves come this June.

By beating the Wild, the Sabres are now 8-0-2 at home, their fastest start since 1989 when they were 13-0-1. The Wild came close putting a stop to the Sabres unbeaten streak.

Wild and Woolley first period

The Sabres had a tendency, especially in the 1998-99 season, to take the weaker teams lightly and play down to their level. Buffalo would beat the strong teams, but would have to hold on to dear life against teams like the Islanders and the expansion clubs. The Sabres did exactly that Friday night - hold on to dear life.

Things started off miserably for the Sabres and Dominik Hasek. With 12:40 gone in the opening stanza, Peter Bartos knocked down the puck with his glove at the Sabres blue line, skated in on a 2-on-1 and blasted one from the left faceoff circle which somehow got past Hasek. The 16,590 groaned with dismay, thinking that this was going to be one of those nights.

While the Sabres were on a power play, Wes Walz stole the puck and broke in on Hasek. Jason Woolley saved the day by taking Walz down. The Wild had another excellent chance when Stacy Roest got in alone on Hasek, but his shot was tipped over the crossbar by a sprawling Hasek.

Just what the Sabres were doing in the first period, know one knows. They only got two shots on Minnesota goalie Jamie McLennan in almost 17 minutes of the period. When the Sabres returned for the second period, the crowd gave them the Bronx cheer for their efforts.

"It was frustrating for everyone," said Doug Gilmour. "But you have to stay patient and the fans have to stay patient. There's not a lot of room. It was just a matter of time."

Sabres turn it up

The Sabres finally got their act together and started putting some rubber on McLennan. The only trouble being that he was stopping everything in sight. Buffalo outshot the Wild 16-9 in the second period and came away empty handed.

HEADS UP! A true indication of how the Sabres were playing in the first period was when Maxim Afinogenov and Chris Gratton collided together in the first period. The Sabres were running into themselves and a hot Wild goalie all night before they exploded for 3 goals in the 3rd period.
[AP Photo/Don Heupel

Coming into the third period, the Sabres knew that they were in serious jeopardy of losing their first home game of the season. It was time to do something about it or blow a huge opportunity to take first place in the East.

Rookie Dennis Hamel, who showed Sabres fans that he can dish it out with his fists when he came away a winner in a fight in Wednesday's game against Dallas, did it with his stick Friday night. Ex-Sabre great and now Empire commentator Danny Gare compared the stick Hamel uses to the one that Gare used during his playing days with Buffalo. Hamel has a big curve on his blade and that may have caused a knuckler to get past McLennan.

Hamel got a shot off at the Wild blue line and it nose-dived like a knuckle ball. It eluded McLennan and Hamel didn't even see his first goal of the year as he headed off to the bench after taking the shot for a line change.

"What the guys told me is the puck dropped almost a foot," said a surprised Hamel. "I didn't see the shot go in. I just tried to make a shot on net because the first two periods, I don't think we tried the goalie so hard."

McLennan was stunned by the shot.

"It hit his stick or something, it just kind of moved," described McLennan. "It was almost like a knuckler. It turned, I have no clue. I'll have to watch the replay."

That goal was the turning point in the game as the Sabres now knew that McLennan could be scored upon. Five minutes later, the Sabres struck again.

J.P. Dumont found Richard Smehlik standing in the right circle and Smehlik beat McLennan with a shot that turned out to be the game winner.

After a tough game against the Stars, the Sabres apparently thought the game against the Wild was going to be a piece of cake.

"Maybe, we thought they were going to hand it to us," said Smehlik. "But it's nice we found a way to win."

With McLennan off in favor of the extra attacker, Maxim Afinogenov scored his fifth goal of they year into an empty net and the Sabres had escaped with their perfect home record intact.

Sabres Talk

The Sabres knew that they have to put forth a much better effort Saturday night when they travel to St. Louis.

"If it takes just 20 minutes to win, that's great," said Hamel. "But we knew in the first two periods we didn't work so hard. You look at the third period and everybody came hard and worked all together."

Hasek knows that the streak will not last forever.

"We have to continue to play like we have been at home," said Hasek. "We're not going to win every game, we know that, but we want to be one of those teams fighting for the first spot." Lindy Ruff is just taking the two points and running with them - all the way to St. Louis.

"We weren't sure what kind of game we were going to get from our guys, partly due to the schedule, partly due to the emotion coming off the Dallas game," Ruff said. "We did not want to take Minnesota for granted. I thought tonight was tough."

Jacques Lemaire was happy with the performance, but would have liked the big upset.

"I just felt that we have a lot of guys missing that were important for our club," said Lemaire. "The guys that come up from Cleveland (IHL) are working hard, but it's a notch higher and much quicker and you have to adapt."

The Wild goalie, McLennan, thinks that his team is close to turning the corner.

"We've had some games like that where we haven't done it in the third, but it's a situation where we have competed and scared teams who maybe tried to turn it up a notch on us," McLennan said. "It's just a matter of turning the corner, getting a win here and a win there. Teams are ready for us. We are not your typical expansion team. We're not getting the backup goalies or depleted lineups."

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