Drop the gloves during the playoffs with SI.com's writers in the NHL Cup Blog, a daily journal of hockey commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
12:17 PM ET, 6/2/06
Hats off to Commodore
Posted by Tom Layberger
The Carolina Hurricanes have many recognizable players with respect to what they have accomplished on the ice. Eric Staal has developed into one of the game's premier talents.
Rod Brind'Amour is the clutch leader and a strong Conn Smythe candidate. Mark Recchi is approaching 500-career goals. Doug Weight is the highly respected veteran who has finally made it this far. Then there is rookie goalie Cam Ward, who has had a marvelous and memorable spring to date.
But while fans wear jerseys with the names of more notable players of their backs, wigged out fans don the hair of only one: Mike Commodore -- the quiet guy on the blue line with the loud mane.
It is most refreshing in this day and age of professional sports when fans are drawn to somebody who merely quietly goes about his profession and is darn good at what he does.
It also refreshing when the little guy -- at least in the figurative sense, as Commodore stands 6-4, 230 -- is the one fans think of and dress like before heading to the game or local establishment to watch their team. After all, things have not come easy for Commodore after winning an NCAA title at North Dakota.
Entering this season, Commodore played all of 75 regular season NHL games over the course of four years. (It is only appropriate rthat he has sported the red jerseys of the Devils, Flames and 'Canes.) But he became a recognizable figure and fan favorite during Calgary's march to the finals in 2004. Fans flocked to the Red Mile, an area that could have easily been renamed for the native of western Canada, what with the great number of replica Commodores out there enjoying the team's success.
This season was the first in which he finally stuck, playing 72 games and posting a plus-12. While 138 penalty minutes is hardly a huge sum, they by far led the 'Canes and Commodore was the player opposing pugilists would seek out. Cam Janssen looked to take out the Devils' frustration on the rearguard in Game 1 of the second round, but as with everything else he does, Commodore acquitted himself well.
With his fiery line of fashion having caught on in the Triangle, Commodore has the Caniacs gearing up – don't forget the robe – for the Cup finals. Win or lose, he'll dress down when the playoffs conclude, as a handful of auction winners will chop his hair to benefit the V Foundation for Cancer Research.
With steroids, scandals and suspensions rampant in sports, Mike Commodore (and his fans) gives us a welcome reprieve.
My phone rang seconds before Rod Brind'Amour scored the power-play goal that gave the Hurricanes the margin of victory over the Buffalo Sabres in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. The area code was 716.
"If this penalty costs us the series, I'm gonna kill someone," my friend from Buffalo fumed. "Either that ref or Brian Campbell."
The "death threat" was exaggerated of course, but you can understand the frustration of a fan on the verge of seeing his team ousted. I didn't say anything at the time -- who wants to talk on the phone in the middle of Game 7? -- but his frustration was completely misplaced.
You can't blame referee Paul Devorski. There was no discretion on that call. When Campbell, under pressure, flipped the puck straight out of the rink in the defensive zone, a trip to the box was automatic.
Don't blame Campbell. It was a mistake, sure, but it also was a fluke. Probably 98 times out of 100, that flip bounces harmlessly off the glass and out of the zone. A tough break, but hardly reason to fit him for the goat horns.
Don't blame the rash of injuries that left Buffalo short five regulars, either. Every team deals with them this deep in the playoffs, and while the Sabres had more than their share, they weren't alone. The Hurricanes have made do without their second-leading scorer, Erik Cole, for the duration of the postseason, and the chemistry he shares with Eric Staal was clearly missed.
So if you have to place the blame somewhere -- and everyone in western New York state is doing that right now -- blame the Sabres' ineffective power play. The difference in this closely contested series was defined by how the teams responded to their opportunities with the extra man.
While Buffalo was one of the best power-play teams during the regular season -- it ranked third at 21.2 percent -- it stumbled along at less than 16 percent in the postseason, and was just 6-for-34 in this series. While that number might not look too bad on the surface, the reality is that the Sabres failed to cash in when it mattered most.
Through the first three games, at which point the Sabres held a 2-1 series edge, they were clicking along at a 5-for-17 pace.
Over the final four contests, they were just 1-for-17, including 0-for-4 in the deciding contest. Given one final chance to tie the game on a late third-period power play, they couldn't even muster a shot on net. Meanwhile, the 'Canes were 4-for-17 over that same span. Three goals better, and two of those were game-winners. That's why the 'Canes got to four victories first, and why the Sabres will spend the summer agonizing over so many squandered opportunities.
It took till the third period of the seventh game of their third playoff series of 2006, but The Curse finally got to the Buffalo Sabres.
Some people, of course, will credit the Carolina Hurricanes for engineering the Sabres' downfall. They were the better team in the regular season, after all, and many experts' choice to win the Stanley Cup. But Buffalo fans know better. It wasn't Doug Weight, Rod Brind'Amour, or Justin Williams who did them in, erasing the Sabres' 2-1 third-period lead on Thursday night with three third-period goals that sparked the 'Canes' 4-2 comeback victory in Game 7, a thriller that sent the Sabres home and Carolina to the Stanley Cup finals. No, those goals weren't the real culprits. It was The Curse.
The dreaded Buffalo Curse lives on.
Sabres fans had every reason to hope, to believe their time had come. It's been a bad milleneum for curses, after all. In 2004, the Curse of the Bambino bit the dust, exorcised by the Idiots on the Red Sox. In 2005, it was the White Sox who ended a curse that had lived since the Black Sox scandal of 1919. But the only curse that mattered to the hardscrabble town from western New York was the one that has hovered over the so-called City of Gloom for years, perhaps forever. The one that forced Scott Norwood's kick "Wide Right!" in the waning seconds of Super Bowl XXV, the first of four straight Super Bowl losses for the Buffalo Bills. The one that caused NHL video replay officials to miss Brett Hull's skate in the crease in the third overtime of Game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup finals, allowing Hull to score the Cup-winning goal on Sabres netminder Dominik Hasek.
No one knows when the curse on Buffalo sports teams curse started, or why. But no one who lives in that title-less town doubts of its existence. Too many strange and tragic things have happened over the years. Tim Horton, the future Hall of Fame defenseman, one of the first stars of the Sabres, died in a one-car accident in mid-season in 1974. In 1989 Clint Malarchuk, the Sabres goalie, had his jugular cut by an opposing player's skateblade in a freakish accident that saw his blood spewing like a fountain across the ice and fans throwing up in the stands. Malarchuk survived and even played three weeks later in the playoffs. The Sabres, however, did not. They were eliminated by the Bruins that year in the first round.
Then there was the time, two months after the Sabres new arena opened in 1996, that their state-of-the-art $127.5 million Jumbotron scoreboard crashed to center ice a few hours before a game against Boston. Strange goings on, indeed.
When the Rigas family, which owned Adelphia Communications, one of the largest local employer's in Buffalo, took control of the Sabres in 1998, the city rejoiced. Until the patriarch, John Rigas, was led away in handcuffs for fraud and the team had to file for bankruptcy protection. Thousands of employees lost their life savings, and several Sabres players who'd invested in the company stock lost a pantload. Curses, foiled again.
But the 2006 model was a new Sabres team with a new owner, Tom Golisano. A real team, without huge egos or big-name stars. The kind of group the city could embrace as their own. Overachievers who knocked off Philadelphia and Ottawa in the first two rounds of the playoffs and seemed on the brink of making history.
And then, enter stage right, comes The Curse.
First, creative forward Tim Connolly goes down with a concussion. Hey, it happens. Hockey's a rough sport, and injuries are part of the game. Then, in quick succession, three of the team's top five defensemen were injured in the course of 10 days: Dmitri Kalinin, Teppo Numminen and Henrik Tallinder.
Still, the gutty Sabres refused to buckle, tying the Carolina series on Tuesday night with a 2-1 win in overtime. Back to Raleigh they went for the deciding Game 7.
But The Curse had one more card to play. One last kick to the groin. Thursday morning Jay McKee, yet another of their stalwart defensemen, the team's shotblocker extraordinaire, awoke in agony with a staff infection in his shin. He was taken to the hospital and shot full of antibiotics, and while Golisano had his private plane at the ready to fly him down to Raleigh in the event McKee's condition improved, it wasn't to be. McKee remained in Buffalo, and Sabres coach Lindy Ruff had to dress, and play, three defensemen who'd spent virtually the entire year in the minor leagues, numbers 8, 9, and 10 on his depth chart.
This was a great series, and a great seventh game. Up and down action, wide open, well-officiated, terrific goaltending, and, when Buffalo's Jochen Hecht banked one off goalie Cam Ward's leg and into the net to give the Sabres a 2-1 lead with 4 seconds remaining in the second period, nail-biting suspense. The three rookie defensemen, Doug Janik, Jeff Jillson, and Nathan Paetsch, played well. Janik even scored the Sabres' first goal. But no team could have expected to beat a lineup as strong as the Hurricanes without four of their top five defensemen. Mission, impossible. The Sabres gave it everything they had, but some forces are beyond human control. In the third period they ran out of gas.
"It's not a curse," Ruff bravely said of his team's predicament. "It's the way we play. I fully expected to lose some guys to injury. Did I think we'd lose this many? No. But you've got to put your body on the line to win games. They've paid a price. The way they battled, the way they faced adversity, you can hold your head up. They're a special group of guys."
Yes, but not special enough to end a Curse that has strangled the full-throated victory cry for an entire region. Someday, perhaps. Somehow. But for 2006, the Buffalo Curse lives on.