The Citizens of Buffalo descended on HSBC Arena on Sunday, bearing not torches and pitchforks but signs I that read HOLY NET, BETTMAN, NO GOAL and WHY US? For two days they'd watched the video of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals between their Sabres and the Philadelphia Flyers as if it were the Zapruder film. The tape showed Philly wing John LeClair blasting a shot through the twine outside the right goalpost. NHL replay officials, not realizing what had occurred until minutes later, had allowed the tally to stand.
The Buffalo fans felt a mixture of anger and angst, a reaction that was hardly surprising considering what they'd witnessed the last time they'd convened for a playoff game: Brett Hull's controversial skate-in-the-crease, triple-overtime score in Game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup finals that gave the chalice to the Dallas Stars. That play was seared into the civic consciousness as No Goal, and the fiasco last Friday in Philadelphia was instantly immortalized as No Goal II. (An equally resonant catchphrase would have been Wide Right II, in memory of Scott Norwood's missed 47-yard field goal that cost the Bills victory in Super Bowl XXV.)
The Sabres haven't fared well with technology recently. Twice within a year, video replay has muddied the picture instead of clarifying it, breeding rancor in Buffalo and around the league. No Goal was a matter of interpretation—NHL replay officials determined that Hull had control of the puck while in the crease, making it a legal score. No Goal II was a matter of injustice and a testament to situational ethics. The NHL had incontrovertible video evidence, pieced together in less than six minutes of playing time, that LeClair's shot had entered the net through the side, but the league chose not to correct the mistake. Even after the Flyers took a 3-0 series lead on Sunday with the most lopsided 2-0 victory imaginable, the question remained: Why wasn't the call reversed?
In the day following No Goal II, NHL executive vice president Colin Campbell raised that question with three neutral general managers. He said they'd agreed that Buffalo had been wronged but that pragmatism outweighed the imperative to get the call correct. If the video-replay official couldn't detect the error in a reasonable time—NHL supervisor John D'Amico and Mike Condon, an off-ice official who works Boston Bruins games during the regular season, had taken 52 seconds before they'd mistakenly determined that LeClair's shot entered the net legally—there was no practical recourse for deleting the score, though nothing in the rule book prohibits reversing a decision after play has resumed. Another general manager told SI he thought the score should have been disallowed and the clock reset to the time of LeClair's nongoal. Sabres general manager Darcy Regier, torn by the issue, said on Sunday, "We owe it to the game to try to find a better answer than the one we had [in Game 2]."
"The question is, How far do we take it?" Campbell said. "Is this Pandora's box? Do we go back to Islanders-Flyers [in pre-replay-rule 1980, when New York scored a key goal in the clinching game of the Cup finals after linesman Leon Stickle missed an Islanders offsides]? Or what if the fifth replay shows a puck gloved ahead to the stick of the player who scored? Should there be a time limit [for disallowing a goal after play has resumed]? These are questions for 30 general managers to discuss and vote on. In this case five networks televising the game with 15 cameras spent more than five minutes [and still couldn't determine that the puck went through the side of the net] before some guy in Bristol [ Conn., home of ESPN] spotted it."
Let's rewind the videotape: With 15:07 left in the second period and Buffalo leading 1-0, LeClair fired a tracer from the right face-off circle that zoomed past goalie Dominik Hasek and into the net. The goal judge flicked on the red light. LeClair, who sensed something wasn't right, hesitated and then raised his arms in celebration. Hasek's reaction was even more curious. He looked at the goalpost and then did a double take, as if noticing that a puppy had left an unwelcome surprise on the carpet. Hasek is so confident in his positioning, he could hardly believe LeClair had found an opening inside the post. Still, Hasek reasoned, that was a 98-mph slap shot. "On the bench we couldn't figure out where it went in," Sabres defenseman Jason Woolley said last Saturday. "We just took our thought process from Dom, who normally goes ballistic if anything's wrong." In the video-replay booth, this goal, like every other, was reviewed. D'Amico and Condon looked at two camera angles, including an overhead shot, and saw nothing untoward. Then the puck was dropped. The game moved on.
D'Amico and Condon, however, didn't have access to the feed from the ESPN camera inside the net. (When asked why, D'Amico replied, "Good question.") ESPN didn't show the conclusive replay from the netcam for several minutes, although once the replay was broadcast, word spread like an urban legend. During a stoppage with 9:55 remaining in the period—five minutes and 12 seconds of playing time after LeClair's goal—Sabres right wing Dixon Ward finally pointed out the hole in the net to linesman Brad Lazarowich, who proceeded to mend it. Regier attempted to enter the video-replay booth to confront the officials but was rebuffed and instructed to return between periods. He did, venting his rage at D'Amico, a frustration Ward would bitterly echo after a match the Flyers would win 2-1. "Embarrassing is what it is," Ward said. "Obviously we can't comment on it because we're not allowed to say anything [negative about the league]. Smile and promote the game. [Say] what a wonderful game it is." If the playoffs revolve around hope, about stealing some of the other team's and adding it to your stash, suddenly the Sabres were without a prayer.
The next day the Buffalo players drifted from anger to irony, with a brief stop for gallows humor, knowing Philadelphia wouldn't start Game 3 with-1 on the scoreboard. Woolley sarcastically suggested the NHL should revamp the rules, awarding two points for a puck that crosses the goal line from in front, one if it goes in from the side. Indeed, rules have changed after screw-ups involving the Sabres—the crease rule was revamped last summer following the No Goal outcry. The fact remained, however, that Buffalo had been slow to rebound from disappointments, taking nine months to recover from No Goal by finally qualifying for the playoffs on the last day of the regular season. In Game 3 the Sabres didn't rebound against the Flyers, who hermetically sealed the crease around rookie goalie Brian Boucher with surpassing team defense. "It's tough to know if he's good or not," Buffalo winger Geoff Sanderson said after Game 3. "We're not getting close enough to test him."
The Sabres won't get the goal or the series back against the Flyers. Sorry. LeClair's twine-tearing shot was, as a remarkably sanguine Hasek put it, "bad luck." Campbell says that "sports is about the moment." Like Buffalo, the NHL has had finer ones.