The best Sabres team to not win a Stanley Cup: 2005-06
The “Scary Good” Sabres could’ve had it all - if it wasn’t for injuries
Historically, the Buffalo Sabres have come fairly close to winning the Stanley Cup a handful of times. Sure, there were the times they made it to the Final in 1975 and 1999. But the 2005-06 Buffalo Sabres had something special, and although they didn’t win the ultimate prize, they could’ve had it all. The team that came a year later was also arguably close to peak performance, but there’s just something special about that ‘05-’06 crew that holds a special place in many people’s hearts, even to this day.
Entering the ‘05-’06 season was an interesting time in the hockey world. The NHL had been locked out of the previous season due to salary cap issues, but returned in time for the new season to begin. The Sabres, meanwhile, were going off three seasons of fifth-place division finishes. They hadn’t made the playoffs since 2001, and were looking to get back on the winning side of things when hockey picked back up.
Like any team, the Sabres saw a fair bit of roster turnover heading into the season. Miroslav Satan, who had been the team’s second-leading scorer in the 2003-04 season, had spent the lockout playing in Slovakia, and returned to North America to suit up for the New York Islanders. He’d put up 57 points in his final season with the Sabres - undeniably a significant loss.
But no fear. The Sabres returned most of their big-name players, including leading scorer Daniel Briere; J.P. Dumont, Chris Drury and Jochen Hecht also returned. All four players had 50-point seasons the season prior and once again contributed offensively. Briere notched 58 points in just 48 games; Dumont had 40 points in 54 games; Drury was second in scoring with 67 points, and Hecht put up 42 points in 64 games.
It wasn’t just about those guys, though. There were several lesser-known rookies who entered on to the NHL scene in ‘05-’06 who made an immediate impact. Enter: Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville. Vanek scored 25 goals and had 48 points in his rookie season, but his real offensive explosion didn’t come until the next season. Pominville managed to put out 30 points in his first season, including 18 goals.
Add in a refreshed Tim Connolly, who hadn’t played since 2003, and a rejuvenated Maxim Afinogenv, and you had the beginnings of a solid offensive core. Connolly would score 55 points that season, while Afinogenov exploded for a team-leading 73 points. This was especially significant, because he’d only recorded 31 points in the previous NHL season; this was the year he really arrived on the NHL scene, and remains his best career NHL season.
Brian Campbell, Henrik Tallinder, Jay McKee and Dmitri Kalinin all returned to the Sabres’ blue line. Joining them were Teppo Numminen and Toni Lydman, who would prove to be a big part of the blue line that season. Lydman led the team and averaged 21:38 of ice time per game, while Numminen played about 19:30 a night.
Here’s the full roster, minus goalie stats:
The Sabres’ goaltending that season both didn’t change, and changed significantly. Although the team returned the same three net minders from the pre-lockout season, things were completely different. Mika Noronen found himself on the outside looking in, and Ryan Miller stepped up big time to earn a significant split of playing time. Martin Biron shifted from the team’s starter to playing a slightly lesser role.
The 25-year-old Miller would end up playing in 48 games, finishing the season with a record of 30-14-3 with a .914 save percentage and 2.60 GAA. He was in the top ten league-wide in save percentage among goalies who appeared in 25+ games, among the likes of Dominik Hasek, Miikka Kiprusoff, Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo and fellow rookie Henrik Lundqvist. Miller’s 30 wins were tied with Lundqvist for most among rookie netminders.
Biron played 35 games with a 21-8-3 record, .905 save percentage and 2.88 GAA. Noronen appeared in only four games, was traded to Vancouver in March and appeared in four additional games for the Canucks.
Overall, the Sabres would finish this season second in the Northeast Division, with an overall record of 52-24-6. They went 27-11-3 at home, and 25-13-3 on the road.
The season began with a pair of wins over the Islanders and Bruins, before a brutal 5-0 loss to the Senators. Buffalo then won four of their next five games and tried to ride this positive energy as the season went on. They would put together a few lengthy winning streaks, including a five-game streak from November 23 until December 2. After one loss, they turned things right around with a seven-game winning streak from December 4 until December 22.
They were hot, and then cold. They would win six in a row in late January, and then put together an eight-game winning streak from March 3 until March 18 that saw them beat divisional opponents like Toronto (twice) and Boston (three times!) It helped that they also finished off the regular season with a five-game winning streak, and winning five of their last seven games, capped off by consecutive shutouts over the Leafs and Hurricanes.
Things were just.... clicking. It was the franchise’s first 100+ point finish since 1984, and the first time in the organization’s history that they’d won more than 50 games in the regular season. Their .671 win percentage was the best since the 1980 team, who had won 47 of 80 games that season.
It took six games, but the Sabres got rid of the Flyers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. A double-overtime win in the first game of the series, followed by a six-goal victory in game two, was enough to power Buffalo through a pair of losses. They finished out the series with a 3-0 win, followed by a 7-1 victory, and were ready to move on to Ottawa.
While their first-round series relied more heavily on home ice advantage, the Sabres headed into Ottawa ready to take on the road challenge. Buffalo won the first three games of the series, including two by overtime, and could have swept the series on home ice in game four. A narrow loss sent them back to Canada’s capital city, where yet another overtime decision tilted the scales in their favor, giving them the series victory.
And once again, on they moved - this time, to Carolina. The Hurricanes were marginally better in the regular season; both teams had 52 wins, but Carolina ended up with two more points, a stellar 31-8-2 record on home ice, and at the top of the Southeast Division. None of that mattered when the puck hit the ice for the series, though.
Game one was Buffalo’s - thank you, Jay McKee. After Carolina tied the series, the Sabres split the next two games on home ice. Back and forth the two teams went. Game five: an overtime loss for Buffalo. Game six, a 2-1 OT win to keep the hope of making it alive. (Thank you, Daniel Briere). It could have been anyone’s game seven, anyone’s series. Either team could have won that game and made it to the Stanley Cup Final.
And although you never want to blame anything on injuries, it’s hard not to point to the numerous injuries on Buffalo’s blue line as part of the reason the season ended there.
Henrik Tallinder played over 26 minutes in the first game of the series, and over 24 minutes in game two. He skated for nearly 21 minutes in game three. Then he suffered a broken arm.
Teppo Numminen had averaged nearly twenty minutes of ice time in the regular season, and was averaging 18:45 in the playoffs. Then hip flexor issues set in.
Dmitri Kalinin had an injury-plagued season and only appeared in eight games. He had a broken left ankle as the Sabres headed to Carolina.
And Jay McKee? He played fine in the beginning of the Carolina series, and played aw whopping 26:19 in game six - behind only Lydman and Campbell. Then, as the clock ticked between games six and seven, he suffered a staph infection in his left leg, and couldn’t even walk on the morning of the final game of the series.
It was one hit after another, forcing the Sabres to call up defensemen from Rochester for the most important game of the season. And although Buffalo kept it close, the magic wasn’t enough to make it happen.
This is a long video, but it’s worth it to hear from McKee, Dumont, Briere & Biron about that team and what made it so special:
We all know, of course, how game seven went - and what happened from there.
The 2006-07 Sabres that came the following year were also a special group. But that team that was put together in the 2005-06 NHL season was one that I’ll never forget. The rush of the regular season, the excitement of win after win; Miller’s real entrance onto the NHL scene as something special; the captains clutch, in Briere and Drury - it all made for an incredible experience to watch as a fan.
I was 14 at the time, and I found it incredibly difficult not to be bitter at the world about all of the injuries the Sabres had suffered, and what happened from there. It was a truly thrilling season, and although they didn’t win the Cup that year (and obviously are still looking for their first championship as a franchise), it’s a team that none of us will ever forget.
They were, indeed, scary good.