Captain Daniel Alfredsson scored 9:32 into overtime Saturday to give the Ottawa Senators a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres that wrapped up the Eastern Conference final in five games, and booked them a trip to the Stanley Cup final for the first time since re-entering the league in 1992.
Alfredsson, arguably the best player in this year’s NHL playoffs, beat Ryan Miller with a low shot just inside the post on the glove side, stunning a sellout crowd of 18,690 at HSBC Arena.
“Right now it’s kind of surreal,” Alfredsson said. “I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet.”
The Senators hope to achieve what Calgary (2004) and Edmonton (2006) just failed to do in the last two championship series, bring the Cup home to Canada.
The old Senators did just that 80 years ago in 1927. No Canadian team has won Lord Stanley’s prize since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993.
Ottawa, unlike the Flames and Oilers, won’t be going into the Cup final as a big underdog. They polished off the President’s Trophy winners in five games, serving notice to either Detroit or Anaheim what awaits them in the final series.
“It’s just exciting to play for a team that has battled through what we have this year and to get a chance to help that team achieve their goal is just great,” goalie Ray Emery said.
Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley also scored for the Senators, who ran their playoff record to an impressive 12-3 – winning all three of their playoff series in five games.
Maxim Afinogenov and Jochen Hecht scored for the Sabres, who will have a President’s Trophy banner hanging down from the rafters at HSBC Arena next season but not the one they’ve dreamed of since coming into the league in 1970 – a Cup banner.
And big questions now follow the Sabres into the off-season with star centres Chris Drury and Daniel Briere both slated for unrestricted free agency July 1. Did they play their last game in a Sabres uniform Saturday?
Buffalo fans get knocked for their fatalist attitude but they were rocking Saturday, trying to push their team to a sixth game.
An electric atmosphere didn’t translate into electric hockey early on, both teams somewhat tentative in a scoreless first period, the Sabres not registering their first shot on goal until eight minutes in.
Shots were 7-7 after 20 minutes but the best chance wasn’t a shot, Ottawa defenceman Anton Volchenkov saving a sure goal when he dove to stop Derek Roy’s attempt at an empty net seven minutes into the game.
Hecht got the 18,690 fans out of their seats 4:30 into the second period, jumping on a loose puck after a broken play in front of Emery, knocking in a backhand past Emery to give Buffalo the much-needed first goal it craved.
Ottawa got a great chance to get back into it moments later with a 5-on-3 power play for 48 seconds, but a big shot block from Drury and a crossbar hit by Spezza kept it 1-0 as Sabres fans roared their approval.
But as has been the case for most of the series, the Sabres couldn’t contain Ottawa’s star-studded big line.
First Spezza grabbed a rebound and slid a pass over to Heatley who deposited into the empty side at 15:41. Then a beauty, Alfredsson with a nifty feed to Spezza on a 2-on-1 with only 39 seconds to go in the middle period, as Spezza went down to one knee for the old fist pump the air got sucked out of HSBC Arena.
The Sabres, however, didn’t back down in the third period and were handed a glorious chance to tie it with a 5-on-3 man advantage for 1:30, and they didn’t waste it.
Afinogenov slipped in a rebound at the side of the net at 10:58, a goal that blew the roof off HSBC Arena.
Moments earlier Drury took a Tim Connolly point shot in the face and headed straight to the dressing room. He did not return until two minutes into the overtime session.
The Sabres got another power play with just over seven minutes to play in the third period but it was Ottawa that came closest to scoring, Antoine Vermette hitting the outside of the post on a partial break.
The fans didn’t back down with their boisterous support, singing along to Bon Jovi’s “Living On A Prayer” with less than five minutes to go in the game, their beloved team’s season very much living on a prayer.
Another Sabres power play with 2:50 to go in the third failed to yield a goal, producing the second overtime game of the series.
Buffalo went 1-for-7 on the power play and ended the series 2-for-29, a major reason for the Sabres’ downfall.
Notes Game 1 hero Oleg Saprykin was a healthy scratch for Ottawa, replaced by Patrick Eaves, who had been out since sustaining a head injury in Game 3 of the Senators’ first-round series with Pittsburgh. Tough guy Brian McGrattan and defenceman Lawrence Nycholat were the other notable scratches … Forward Dainius Zubrus (lower body) was out for Buffalo, replaced in the lineup by rookie Drew Stafford. Forward Daniel Paille and tough guy Andrew Peters were healthy scratches.