When news landed that Buffalo defenseman Jay McKee would miss Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals with a leg infection – an almost unbelievable piece of news given the Sabres' long list of injuries on defense this postseason – it became possible to write a script for Thursday's deciding game before the puck even dropped.
The Sabres, getting by on heart and grit and depth and sheer will, just as they have done all season, would get under Carolina's skin and hang around for 20 minutes – maybe 40 if coach Lindy Ruff could coax a career game out of Jeff Jillson or Doug Janik or Nathan Paetsch.
But eventually the Hurricanes would wear them down. Ruff would bench the inexperienced guys in the final period and rotate four defensemen. The minutes would take their toll, mistakes would be made and Carolina's heart-and-soul guys like Doug Weight and Rod Brind'Amour would be there to capitalize.
And that's exactly how Thursday's Game 7 went. Only it didn't go that way at all.
Buffalo did hang around early, leading even after two periods. And those guys pressed into duty by injuries to McKee, Teppo Numminen, Henrik Tallinder and Dmitri Kalinin – four of Buffalo's top six defensemen – did just fine.
McKee is the best shot-blocker in the NHL. Janik, perhaps sensing a void, blocked four shots on his own in the first period. The Sabres' best first-period shift came with Jillson on the ice. Paetsch, whose previous NHL experience consisted of 15 minutes in a regular season game back in January, shared team-high honors with three shots Thursday.
So Ruff never pulled the plug on the kids. They gave him no reason to. Before Game 7 it was thought that Brian Campbell and Toni Lydman might each have to play more than 30 minutes. Neither played more than 26:43, a reasonable total.
In the end those character guys for Carolina would come through. Weight took a feed from Ray Whitney, another guy who's been around, to tie the game early in the third period. A short time later an opportunistic Brind'Amour scored the game-winner.
But it wouldn't be inexperience that did Buffalo in. Carolina's first goal ricocheted off a pair of skates before beating goalie Ryan Miller. Brind'Amour's game-winning goal came after Rory Fitzpatrick couldn't find the puck in his skates.
What will linger for Sabres fans is the sense that this series was never contested on a level playing field. Center Tim Connolly, a would-be force on the power play, never played in this series due to a concussion. Numminen's ability to move the puck – he was third on the team in power-play assists with 20 – no doubt could have helped the team's sputtering special teams.
It was still an amazing effort. Getting this series to seven games and keeping Thursday's decider close until the final seconds speaks volumes about the character of this team.
THIRD STAR OF THE DAY
Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour had by far his worst game of the series in the faceoff circle. He dominated on draws in Games 2 through 6, but Thursday won just nine of the 23 faceoffs he took. So who was out there for the game's most critical draw, one coming with Carolina nursing a one-goal lead with a little more than a minute remaining? It was Brind'Amour, of course, and he beat Chris Drury cleanly before picking up an assist on the Justin Williams goal that resulted from continuing action. Brind'Amour also scored the game-winning goal, jumping into the play when he realized Buffalo defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick had lost the puck in his skates.
SECOND STAR OF THE DAY
Jochen Hecht played a really smart game for the Sabres, and after 40 minutes he looked like the Game 7 hero. He took only two faceoffs Thursday, but won a key second-period draw against Eric Staal. That play resulted in Doug Janik's first career Stanley Cup playoff goal, with Hecht providing the screen. Later, with just seconds remaining in the same period, Hecht recognized that he had time only for a desperation wraparound attempt. Sometimes just throwing the puck at the net pays dividends, as Hecht learned when the puck deflected off Glen Wesley and Cam Ward before finding the back of the net with just five seconds remaining.
FIRST STAR OF THE DAY
Doug Weight took Carolina's Game 6 overtime loss harder than anyone. The 13-year NHL veteran has never played in the Stanley Cup finals, and he was forced to watch from the penalty box as a shot to get there escaped the Hurricanes Tuesday. He had some choice words for the call that sent him off, but also admitted that he should have been smarter on the play. Weight said he would have a great game Thursday, and coach Peter Laviolette predicted that his center would find "redemption." Indeed he did. Weight got the primary assist on Carolina's first goal, and he took a feed from Ray Whitney to beat Ryan Miller on a one-timer to tie the game at 2-2 early in the third period.
Poll NHL players on their least-favorite rule change and you'll likely get several votes for prohibiting goalies from playing the puck and probably a few more for the mandatory minor penalty that comes along with clearing the puck over the glass from the defensive zone. Poll the Sabres after Thursday's Game 7 and you'll likely get a landslide winner. Brind'Amour's game-winner came after Buffalo was penalized two minutes when defenseman Brian Campbell cleared the puck over the glass. It was an innocent enough clearing attempt – Campbell trying to wrap the puck around the boards from behind his net – but a strong forecheck hurried him into flipping the puck into the stands. Certainly not an intentional delay of game, but since there's no room for referee discretion under the rules, the game-changing power-play was on.
Buffalo scored only one power-play goal in the final four games of this series as Carolina killed 16 of its 17 chances. Without a doubt injuries to Buffalo's playmaking defensemen played a role in the team's futility, but the Sabres desperately needed to convert some of those chances. Thursday they were handed a late power play when Jason Pominville of all people drew a tripping penalty with four-plus minutes remaining. Only one shot was recorded in the next two minutes and it was a Kevyn Adams shorthanded chance. Buffalo had the third-best power play in the NHL during the regular season and it let them down in the Eastern Conference finals.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR MONDAY
Game 1: Edmonton Oilers at Carolina Hurricanes: – Edmonton had some rest after finishing Anaheim in five games, probably a good thing considering the team was ravaged by the flu in that series. But the Oilers guarded against getting too comfortable. After all, Anaheim was the rested team after sweeping Colorado and the Oilers came out with more jump. Carolina came through the Buffalo series in excellent health, having made no lineup changes in seven games. Carolina opens the Stanley Cup finals at home after three days off, so fatigue shouldn't be a concern.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE NIGHT Watch
Great change of direction by Ray Whitney on Doug Weight's game-tying goal in the third period. Skating behind the net, Whitney put the brakes on as defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick skated out of the play. Whitney was then able to find Weight in front of the net for Carolina's second goal.
Fitzpatrick was an unfortunate player in Carolina's first two goals of the third period.