Cutting to the point
Sabres not flashy, but heading to Stanley Cup finals
Posted: Saturday June 05, 1999 09:03 PM
Erik Rasmussen scored midway through the third period May 31 to snap a tie as the Sabres rallied to beat Toronto 4-2 and capture the Eastern Conference final in Game 5.
Last year, the Sabres whooped it up after sweeping the Montreal Canadiens in the second round. But they found out they couldn't win every series relying on goalie Dominik Hasek and lost to the Washington Capitals in the conference final.
This time the celebration was subdued.
"I feel proud of this team, but we have a long way to go," said Dixon Ward, whose empty-net goal in the final minute secured the Buffalo victory. "We haven't won anything yet. We weren't playing for that [Prince of Wales] trophy. We only care about one trophy."
That would be the Stanley Cup, the only piece of hardware that Hasek hasn't won.
"To win the last round will be harder than winning the first three," said Hasek, who has won the last two league MVP awards and led the Czech Republic to the gold medal at the Nagano Olympics last year. "It's great to get to the final, but our goal is to win."
Hasek missed the first two games of the Eastern Conference final because of a groin injury. And he hardly played like the Dominator of old in the final two games.
"I'm very, very happy," Hasek said. "It's a great feeling. I think the difference was our experience. We're a very hungry team. We're a different team than last year. We know what it takes to win more than two rounds."
Rasmussen's goal came just over two minutes after the Sabres had a goal by Vaclav Varada disallowed and sent Buffalo to the Stanley Cup finals for only the second time since the team joined the NHL in 1970.
"We've made it to the dance," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said. "We're just waiting for our partner."
The Sabres and their famed finesse "French Connection" line of Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert were beaten 4-2 in the 1975 finals by the Philadelphia Flyers. This time the Sabres will play either Dallas or Colorado, which leads the Western Conference final 3-2.
This group of Sabres is far from flashy, but proved again that the way the game is played today, there is no substitute for grit.
Despite the raucous Maple Leaf fans, who haven't seen their beloved team in the finals since they won their last Cup in 1967, the Sabres persevered again.
Twice the Sabres fell behind and twice they battled back. Rasmussen broke a 2-2 tie off a brilliant effort by Brian Holzinger. Holzinger broke into the Toronto zone along the left boards, stopped, spun around and fired a hard drive at Curtis Joseph. The puck skidded to Rasmussen and he drilled it back in at 11:35 before Joseph could recover.
Toronto got a terrific chance to tie the game again when Buffalo defenseman Alexei Zhitnik was called for holding with just under three minutes left.
Toronto pulled goalie Curtis Joseph to get a two-man advantage, but Ward ended the suspense with 1:02 left before the Maple Leafs could manage a shot on Hasek.
It was a quick ending for the Maple Leafs, who led the league in scoring during the regular season. They rallied in the first two rounds to beat Philadelphia and Pittsburgh after falling behind in each series but could not solve the Sabres' tough, close checking.
"It was a heartbreaking game," said Toronto captain Mats Sundin. "I thought we deserved better. It seemed the puck was bouncing our way in the first two series. It didn't work in this one."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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