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Sabres Central

Gratton's late goal nets Sabres a tie
By Rick Anderson
October 21, 2000

The Sabres were on the verge of losing their fourth straight game when help came from an unexpected source - Chris Gratton. Gratton, scored only his second goal in a Buffalo uniform Friday night as the Sabres came back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the Anaheim Mighty Ducks 2-2.

Chris Gratton, who gets a late goal to help the Sabres tie the game, here gets into the crease as he would all night, creating havoc for Ducks goalie Dominic Roussel. With only 7.2 seconds left in the contest, Gratton would force himself into the cease and hammer a goal through Rousel's legs.
[AP Photo/Don Heupel]

It could have been worse. The Sabres had to battle back from two goals and, because 10 seconds were put back on the clock after the Sabres almost scored moments before, Gratton finally used his size to muscle home the tying goal with only 7.2 seconds left in regulation.

It could have been much better. Although the Sabres get their first point in 5 games, they should have come out of this home contest with 2 points. Buffalo completely outplayed the Mighty Ducks, outshooting them by a commanding 36-19 count and winning 63% of all faceoffs taken.

One of the reasons why the Sabres had to struggle to pick up a measly point was the continued weak goaltending provided by Dominik Hasek. The two goals scored by Ducks Paul Kariya and Tony Hrkac were very stoppable, even by non-Hasek standards. It wasn't until over halfway through the second period before the Sabres even got on the scoreboard when Erik Rasmussen netted one. The other "Dominik" in goal, Dominic Roussel, outperformed the world-class Dominik 2-1 throughout the game. Roussel was brilliant in the nets, keeping the Sabres off the scoreboard until Rasmussen ruined his shutout bid, and if the timekeeper hadn't put the extra 10 seconds back on the clock at the very end of the game, the Sabres would have been handed their fourth straight defeat.

The highly publicized Sabres' goal of coming out of the gates comparable to greased lightning has fizzled like a Fourth of July dud. The extra money spent by the organization in moving their training camp to Carolina for "bonding purposes" would have been spent in better places - like on new contracts for Michael Peca and Martin Biron.

After winning their first two games (and without Hasek no less), the Sabres have reverted back to the style of hockey they shamefully displayed last year when they went winless in their first 7 games. In order for the Sabres to prevent digging as deep a hole as last year's, they have to play a more disciplined and, at the same time, a more aggressive brand of hockey. Combining those 2 elements will be like mixing oil and water for Sabres coach Lindy Ruff.

One of the areas the Sabres have to improve in to get out of their 4-game funk is to get better goaltending out of Hasek. Hasek has not seemed too comfortable in the crease since coming back from the injury he suffered to his leg in the season opener. The two goals he allowed against the Ducks were ones he normally stops. At times during the past 4 games, Hasek has looked brilliant, at other times less than ordinary. The Sabres are not paying Hasek $8.5 million to be ordinary.

"Physically I feel great," the Dominator said. "Sometimes I don't make the saves I should make."

Meanwhile, the Sabres offense, which produced 9 goals in their first 2 games, has gone back to last year's ineptitude. As suddenly as the Sabres exploded on the scene with a barrage of goals in the first two games, their offense disappeared again as they netted only 7 in the next four.

Gratton was a definite factor in Friday's game. Not only did he score the crucial tying goal, but his ability to win 66% of the faceoffs was no less important. Being known for his success at winning draws was one of the reasons why the Sabres gave up so much for Gratton right before last year's trade deadline. However, Gratton has never lived up to the reputation that helped make him a No. 1 draft choice of the Philadelphia Flyers a few years ago. After being traded, required once again by the Flyers and traded away again, Gratton has been shuffled around more than a well used deck of cards. Gratton, until Friday's game-tying goal, had never scored a goal for the Sabres against an opposing goalie. Last year he put one into an empty net. Ever since then, Gratton's scoring stats have been goose eggs.

"I was wondering what I was going to have to do," Gratton said after scoring the last second goal. "I tried driving different ways, changing sticks. I tried just about everything."

The Sabres thought they had scored a goal moments before Gratton's dynamic tally. J.P. Dumont had hit the goal post and the puck fell dangerously close to the goal line before Roussel covered up. Buffalo wanted a video review, but the referee declined. Instead, the officials put more time on the clock. That was even better.

Ruff put Gratton on the Doug Gilmour line and it paid big dividends, not only at the very end of the game, but throughout. Gratton fought his way right into the crease in an attempt to cause havoc in front of Roussel as Gilmour had control of the puck behind the Anaheim net. Gilmour's pass was put in front and Gratton batted away at the rubber a couple times before he finally was able to wack it between Roussel's legs.

"At that point, I just wanted to go to the net and try to create traffic," said a relieved Gratton. "Hopefully it's the start of good things to come here, but it had been frustrating."

Roussel almost had the puck in his grasp, but Gratton's physical force was too much to be denied on this occasion.

"I was looking at the puck," replied Roussel. "They flipped it at my feet, and I was looking down and somebody's stick was there and poked it in. For that fraction of a second, I lost it."

"That's the way we need Chris to play," Ruff said. "He did a good job hanging onto the puck, and going to the net and checking. Chris had one of his better games. It should be a huge boost. Only he had struggled in the goal department."

Ruff's newly created line with Gratton at center with Gilmour and Maxim Afinogenov on his wings seemed to click.

Sabres Vaclav Varada gets away with one here as he hooks Matt Cullen during the first period of the Sabres 2-2 tie with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
[AP Photo/Don Heupel]

"That was a tough game," Ruff said. "It was a good goal and there were three guys around the net. I thought Gilmour and Gratton fed off each other and Chris is one of our better two-way centerman. He put himself into the right position and he finished his checks."

The Ducks came out as if they were going to send Hasek to the bench in favor of Peter Skudra. With a little under 4 minutes into the game, Paul Kariya tore down the left side and charged across the blue line. Rhett Warrener attempt to poke the puck from Kariya failed and Kariya breezed past the Sabres defenseman as if he were an orange pylon. The Ducks' scoring star approached the left faceoff circle and let go a wicked slap shot that Hasek waived at with his catching mitt as the puck hit the top corner giving the Mighty Ducks a 1-0 lead. It was only the third shot on the Buffalo netminder and it was a shot that under normal circumstances he would have stopped. Apparently, these are not normal circumstances for Hasek.

Things got worse for the Sabres' top goaltender of all time when Tony Hrkac took over a loose puck near the Buffalo blue line and flew in all alone on Hasek. Hrkac took a shot that hit the crossbar and the puck ricocheted right behind Hasek for a goal. Ruff may have been contemplating the possibility of pulling Hasek right then, but a minute later the Sabres finally were able to solve the Rousell mystery. Warrener kept the puck in the Ducks zone when the Sabres were pressing to mount some kind of offense and Rasmussen got the puck near the right circle and took a hard shot that made its way through Rousell's pads for his first goal of the season.

Right at the end of Tuesday's game with Montreal, Alexei Zhitnik committed a foolish penalty when he hacked Andrei Markov's head with a high stick. That numbskull play resulted in the Canadiens scoring the winning goal with less than a minute remaining and landed Zhitnik a well-deserved 4-game suspension. In Friday's game, the Sabres once again committed a foolish late-game penalty that could have cost them dearly. Jay McKee got a two minute "holding" penalty after he pulled down Teemu Selanne less than half a minute after the overtime faceoff. The Sabres penalty kill unit, which had been much maligned during their recent road trip, killed off the penalty to keep the Ducks from their third victory on the road this season.

With under a minute left in the overtime, Niclas Havelid went off for hooking and the Sabres had a glorious opportunity to get two points out of the contest. Ruff used some coaching smarts when he tried to get some extra time for Gilmour and Gratton to catch their collective breaths. Having spent his allotted timeout earlier, Ruff pulled Hasek in favor of Skudra, thus giving the Sabres some extra time off. The Sabres were able to force the play in the Anaheim zone, but were unable to solve Rousell's mastery over the Buffalo shooters. Hasek came back in after the next stoppage of play and the game ended up in a tie.

The Mighty Ducks coach, Craig Hartsburg, knew his team had frittered away a paradisiacal chance to win their third road game.

"We were up 2-0, I didn't think we played as well as we should or as well as we can," said Hartsburg.

"We sat back too much," put in Ducks' center Steve Rucchin. "But give them credit. They came out hard and did exactly what we wanted to do -- maintain a lot of pressure."

Meanwhile, Ruff was counting his blessings.

"That would have been a tough game to come out of without anything to show for it," Ruff said with a sigh of relief. "It looked like it was going to be that way for a while. Dumont hit the post and it doesn't go in. But they stuck with it."

The Sabres left immediately after the game for a flight to Detroit, where they will play the Red Wings Saturday night. The Wings have given the Sabres a lot of trouble the past few years, and the Sabres have to play their "A game" in order to defeat the powerful Wings.

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