When people talk about the best Sabres teams ever, you hear about the 1974-75 team, the 1999 team, and the 05-06 and 06-07 teams.
But a team routinely overlooked is the 2000-01 team.
Here is the story of a team that certainly deserves credit for being one of the best Buffalo had.
The Buffalo Sabres of the late 1990s were a team defined by their all-world goaltender, Dominik Hasek and strong defensive play. Buffalo won their division in 1997, went to the Conference Finals in 1998, and the Cup Final in 1999.
After a down year in 2000, the Sabres entered the 2000-01 season with a good roster but knowing their chances were running out.
Buffalo has a superb season finishing 5th overall with a 46-30-15-1 record, good for 98 pts. Buffalo was the best team in the NHL for goals against, shutouts recorded, power-play goals allowed, and they had the top-ranked penalty kill in the NHL.
Heading into the season, team captain Michael Peca held out from the team in a contract dispute. Even with his absence, the 2000-01 Sabres entered with a solid veteran roster not only backed by Hasek but also featuring future Hockey Hall of Famers Dave Andreychuk and Doug Gilmour.
They also had Alexei Zhitnik, Miroslav Satan, who had scored 33 goals and 40 goals in the previous seasons, and an upcoming young forward named J.P. Dumont. The Sabres also had good depth with forwards Stu Barnes and Chris Gratton, both of whom scored 19 goals and had over 40 points that season.
J.P. was kind enough to chat with us and look back on the 2000-01 season in Buffalo.
BHC – What was it like joining Buffalo given the success they had experienced in previous seasons?
J.P.Dumont: “I felt like going to Buffalo was a really good fit. They were a low-scoring team that won 2-1 type games and I could help. Darcy and Lindy said I was going to Rochester to learn the system. The next year was huge though. Entering a team with Hasek was amazing. He was the best goalie I ever saw. Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk were a big help, and for Max & Dimitri who were young players like myself having Alexei Zhitnik was big in their growth. Barnes was a great linemate and we had a good culture and chemistry together in Buffalo.”
The Sabres started the season slowly, going 2-3-1-1 in their first seven games. They righted the ship quickly and by November 25th they were 12-6-2-1. They finished the 2000 calendar year at a respectable 20-12-3-1 while beating the defending Stanley Cup champions (New Jersey Devils) twice in December. The Sabres would finish 4-0 against the Devils that season and went 10-2-1 overall against them and the other division winners (Washington & Ottawa).
BHC: As a team, you seemed to rise to the level of your competition and your success against the best teams in your Conference seemed to show that. Was there something specific as a team that helped in those occasions?
J.P. Dumont: “Every time we stepped on the ice we knew we could win. Having Hasek meant that if we scored a goal or two we were in the game. Everyone felt confident with our goaltending. We had a great system that everyone bought into, but we also had the talent to score when needed”.
The Sabres entered the All-Star break on a losing streak, though, going 1-5 in their last six games. The rest served the team well as they finished a blistering 21-10, good enough for the best record in the NHL over the last 31 games. Included in those wins was a 3-2 victory over the future Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.
At the Trade Deadline, GM Darcy Regier bolstered the offense by acquiring former Sabre Donald Audette from Atlanta (who was having a career year with 32 goals and 71 points) and Steve Heinze from Columbus, who had 22 goals and 42 points when he was acquired. These additions strengthened Buffalo’s offense, which was already clicking at a decent rate. With a 46-30-15-1 record and improvements to the offense, hopes were high that this Sabres team might be able to make a deep playoff run.
The Sabres ended the season with a loss to Flyers, giving Philadelphia home-ice advantage as both teams were set to face each other in the playoffs. The Sabres and Flyers had become bitter rivals throughout their history, and especially during the 1990s when the games were notorious for their physical play and fighting. Buffalo lost to the Flyers three times in their previous four playoff matchups (95, 97, & 2000) and went 0-4 against the Flyers that season. Flyers goalie Roman Checkmanek had a superb season in net and there was reason to believe the Flyers would be a tough out.
BHC: Buffalo vs Philadelphia really hit an apex of hatred in the 1990s/early 2000s and the games were incredibly emotional. What was it like playing them?
J.P. Dumont: “Growing up, it was always the Broad Street Bullies, it’s going be tough. Going into the season, even though we had Hasek, it was a feeling of “oh, it’s going to be a fight with them.” It was tough, but we were so ready to go and confident that we did really well. But it was always something with the Flyers so you had to be ready with them. “
BHC: I miss the rivalries we had back with the old playoff structure as opposed today where it is so division focused. We hated Philadelphia in the 1990’s and early 2000’s what was that like during that time?
J.P. Dumont: Yeah, that is why those rivalries started. It was a natural evolution because you only see them a few times in the season, but when you see them a few times over the playoffs that really builds the intensity. Don’t get me wrong, it always is exciting with the playoffs, but when you go against a team where its constant battles with the same guys, the fans are chirping back and forth, it is a heck of a lot of fun to be apart of.”
Game 1 opened in Philly with the Sabres winning a tight 2-1 affair.
Hasek stopped a penalty shot by Mark Recchi in the first period and allowed just one goal on 32 shots in the game.
Going into Game 2, Buffalo had a golden opportunity to grab a 2-0 series lead heading home the day before Easter. Philadelphia came out strong, nabbing a 1-0 lead on the strength of Daymond Langkow’s powerplay goal. The second period saw both teams score two goals, giving the Flyers a 3-2 lead heading into the 3rd period. Just over three minutes into the 3rd period, Curtis Brown tied the game at 3 and the game moved to overtime. Buffalo came out confident and strong in overtime, but the period progressed with the game tied. Fate smiled on the Sabres as they circled the puck in the Flyers end and Buffalo’s Erik Ramsmusen passed the puck to a wide open Jay McKee on the left point who got a low wrist shot by Ceckmanek, winning the game for Buffalo.
The Sabres came back home with a 2-0 series lead. But the Flyers responded with a Game 3 victory despite Buffalo outplaying them.
Game 4 saw an even scoring affair head to overtime again, where the Sabres saw heroics from Brown, who managed to circle behind the Flyers net and around half the ice. When he got to the middle of the Flyers end he had managed to get Ceckmanek out of position and roofed a shot.
In Game 5, the Flyers came out desperate and won 3-1 to send the series back to Buffalo. Game 6 was expected to be another close affair, but instead, the Sabres blew out the Flyers at home with a relentless attack throughout. Philadelphia looked frustrated and shell shocked as they went down 4-0 in the first period alone. In the second period, J.P. Dumont scored his first playoff goal ever and then added another on a breakaway a little later. The Sabres vanquished their rivals by an 8-0 score at home.
After dispatching the Flyers in six games, the Sabres took on the Pittsburgh Penguins in the divisional round. The Penguins were led by NHL legend Mario Lemieux, who had unretired mid-season and helped spur the Penguins to the playoffs. The Penguins were the inverse of the Sabres defensive juggernaut with an offense that had the 5th best powerplay in the NHL and a scoring machine led by Jaromir Jagr (121 points), Alexei Kovalev (95), and Martin Straka (95) all who were better than a point per game.
BHC: Mario Lemieux… that had to be a heck of an experience to play him for seven games, can you describe that?
J.P. Dumont: “Playing against both Mario and Gretzky was special. The one game against Gretzky I actually scored a hat trick which was really special for me. Those guys were my idols so it was surreal to play them. Later on, Joe Sakic was another guy I enjoyed playing in the same way and looked up to.”
In Game 1, the Sabres came out flat as the Penguins scored early and Buffalo couldn’t put the puck past Penguins goalie Johan Hedberg. Pittsburgh cruised to a 3-0 victory. Buffalo improved in Game 2, finally getting on the scoreboard in the second period with a Stu Barnes powerplay goal to tie the game at 1. But in the 3rd period, the Penguins again scored, and the Sabres couldn’t as they fell, 3-1, with a late empty-net goal by Alexei Kovalev.
Heading down to Pittsburgh, the Sabres trailed 2-0 in the series and many considered the Sabres dead given the Penguins scoring and home-ice advantage they possessed. But the Sabres rallied big-time, winning Game 3 by a 4-1 score.
Game 4 saw the Sabres continue their strong play, allowing just 17 shots while scoring five times to even the series.
In a pivotal game 5, Buffalo went down by two goals early on but again rallied to force overtime. Dumont set up Barnes, who ripped a shot past Hedberg off the top crossbar to win the game, 3-2.
BHC: On the OT winner by Barnes you made a great play to outwork Bob Boughner and get the drop pass to Barnes. For being a young player that had to be an incredible moment to contribute like that.
J.P. Dumont: “Being a young player the best feeling is when you score, but being part of the work was something special. The battles in the neutral zone were big. These days there would’ve been two penalties called, but it was a big goal by Stu. I was trusted to be on the powerplay, penalty kill, and got a good amount of ice time which as a young player meant a lot.”
Game 6 was mostly dominated by Pittsburgh, but Hasek had a superb game and the Sabres held a 2-1 lead late into the third period. With less than two minutes to play, a third Conference Finals birth in four years seemed likely. But the Penguins pressed with pressure deep in front of the Sabres net and no other than Mario Lemieux managed to bat a bouncing puck into the Sabres goal with just a minute and eighteen seconds remaining.
J.P. Dumont: “I remember in Game 6, the puck going 25ft in the air right to Mario’s stick because of course, it went to him. Anyone else wouldn’t have made that play, but of course, he did haha.”
With the game tied at 2 heading into overtime, the Sabres seemed to be on their heals in the period with all the momentum in the Penguins’ favor. Pittsburgh’s Robert Lang forechecked hard after a regular dump in into the Sabres end. He threw a quick pass to Kovalev who setup Martin Straka in front, scoring the winning the goal for the Penguins. The series was tied three heading back to Buffalo, but there was a sense Buffalo had lost a big chance to end the series.
Game 7 saw an evenly matched game from the start. Dumont scored to give the Sabres a 1-0 lead early only for the Penguins to match it midway through the 2nd period. Buffalo scored on the power play just 32 seconds into the third period, giving Sabres fans the feeling the night could be theirs. But Straka set up Lang for the tying goal with 11 minutes left in the 3rd period.
Buffalo continued to press but couldn’t beat Hedberg in the period. There was controversy with a minute remaining as the Sabres held pressure in the Penguins zone only for Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis to throw the puck into the stands. At that time in the NHL that was a two-minute penalty, but none was called.
In overtime, the Penguins found life, outshooting Buffalo 10-5 in the period. The clock hit midnight for the Sabres era when Kasparaitis scored with a shot from the point that snuck by Hasek. The arena had a sense of disbelief for a few seconds as did the Sabres before reality hit that the Sabres season was over and this was most likely Hasek’s last game in Buffalo.
J.P. Dumont: “People talk about 2006 being a heartbreaker, but that goal by Kasparaitis was just as bad. I was on the bench when it happened and watching it go through was so slow. The success we had that season, you certainly wonder what could have been and you have all of those what-ifs. We didn’t have Micahel Peca and still had a great team but you certainly wonder if things would’ve been different with him.
J.P. Dumont: “I do have regrets because we lost, but I learned so much during those times. Being a young player, you sometimes don’t get to see the ice all the time or you aren’t even on the bench. So being able to play every game and contribute was special and a big help for my development. I was a young player and I had some powerplay time and some PK time so I felt like I was really part of the team in terms of being counted on and trusted”.
For the Sabres, it really was the end of an era as both Hasek and former captain Michael Peca were traded that offseason. Buffalo then hit a few very dark years as the team missed the playoffs for three straight seasons and went into bankruptcy. The 2000-01 Sabres are one of the best teams in franchise history but also one of the more unique.
Because of the way the Pittsburgh series ended, we are all left wondering about what could have been. Giver their record against New Jersey and Colorado in the regular season, perhaps, even more, could have been accomplished.