If there has ever been a better sports weekend -- at least from a Western New York perspective -- than the one just past, I missed it.
On Friday night, the Buffalo Sabres staged the greatest comeback, in terms of drama and what was at stake, in the franchise's history.
Sunday afternoon, they got what had been the National Hockey League's most prolific offense during the regular season going full-bore over an extended period for the first time in 11 playoff games, then held off the New York Rangers to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight year.
On Saturday, hockey's day off, you had the Kentucky Derby -- the horse race that even those of us who know squat about the sport take time to watch each year -- in the afternoon, followed by the most-hyped boxing match in a decade at night.
So much was going on, I didn't hear anyone mention the Buffalo Bills once, barely a week removed from the draft.
A remarkable two-game winning streak by the New York Yankees over the putrid Seattle Mariners went all but unnoticed. The Pinstripes' signing of the perpetually comebacking Roger Clemens merited only an "Oh, by the way" during the Sabres' telecast on NBC.
And the National Basketball Association's playoffs moved into the second round, reportedly. Rather than building to a crescendo, the sporting weekend peaked early -- at about 9:31 p.m. Friday, to be exact.
That's when Chris Drury emerged from behind the New York net, pounced on a loose puck and zipped it past the previously impervious Henrik Lundqvist, who had flipped aside Buffalo's first 36 shots of the evening, to send Game 5 to overtime.
That Maxim Afinogenov blasted one past Lundqvist from just inside the blue line a mere 4:39 into overtime, then executed a joyfully styleless belly flop across the logo at center ice, was dramatic, but without much suspense.
After Drury's tying shot with but 7.7 seconds left in regulation, it was less a matter of if a Sabre would net the winner than which one would do so. That it was Afinogenov, banished by Lindy Ruff during Game 4 after displaying carelessness with the puck and a strange detachment without it earlier in the series, just provided one more sub-plot, pushing the ending to the verge of implausibility.
Simply getting to overtime was unlikely enough. Buffalo out-shot, out-skated and out-hit the Rangers for nearly 57 minutes of regulation, but couldn't get anything past Lundqvist. Then Martin Straka slipped one under Ryan Miller's arm so quickly that the television cameras didn't catch the goal live. It seemed as if the Sabres were doomed to lose the pivotal contest of the series in the same way they had won so many games during Dominik Hasek's long-ago tenure, with Lundqvist's brilliance more than compensating for his team's shortcomings everywhere else on the ice.
Once the clock passed the one-minute mark, Buffalo's brilliant season steadily slipped away as quickly as the tenths-of-a-second evaporated. Though every close hockey game ends with one net empty, such final assaults are almost always futile, one of the bigger reasons mainstream passion for the sport lags well behind football, basketball and baseball among professional team sports almost everyplace except the Buffalo area, Canada and Detroit.
Just about every Sunday during the National Football League season features at least one contest won on the final play. Buzzer-beating baskets and final-inning rallies highlight every edition of "SportsCenter."
But a game-tying goal with 7.7 seconds left? Ridiculous -- especially against a team on the verge of its third straight win behind a goalie growing more invincible by the save.
About the only comparable moment came almost a year to the day earlier, when Tim Connolly scored with 11 seconds left to force overtime against Ottawa on May 5, 2006, with Drury ending it 18 seconds into the extra session.
As spectacular as that 7-6 Buffalo win was unto itself, though, that was only Game 1. The Sabres and their fans were hoping to beat Ottawa, but not necessarily expected to do so.
When Drury scored on Friday, he saved his team from heading to Madison Square Garden needing a win to avert elimination and preserved the hope that's been building for more than a year.
Saturday's sports viewing was relaxing by comparison. Unless you bet Hard Spun to win at 15-1 and lost your mind for about a minute and a half, only to watch Street Sense blow past him down the stretch.
Once again, NBC somehow managed to spend 90 minutes broadcasting an event that lasted for two minutes and 2.17 seconds. It's great stuff if you're hoping to glean some actual news to better inform your last-minute bet -- which you will never, ever get from this outlet -- or truly enjoy gauzy features about the precious rich folks who own most of the animals. For the rest of us, it's the most economical of sporting events. Flip on the television as they're leading the contenders into the starting gate, then off again five minutes later.
Despite its massive buildup, including the first reality series centering around an actual sporting event that didn't exist only for the benefit of the show, Saturday night's mega-bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Oscar De La Hoya largely lacked the high drama you hope for when plunking down $54.95 for three hours of boxing.
Which isn't to say it wasn't a good fight. Mayweather showed the defensive skills and speed that make him the consensus pick as the top pound-for-pound boxer in the world. De La Hoya kept the pressure on for 12 rounds, displaying no sign that his wealth and superstardom have dulled his skills or fire.
After eight pretty even rounds, Mayweather took over in the final frames to pull out a split decision that should have been unanimous. But he didn't earn the win by out-slugging his bigger, stronger opponent, as Sugar Ray Leonard did while cementing his legend against Thomas Hearns in the last non-heavyweight fight to garner such widespread hype, way back in 1981.
Knocking out the sport's most fearsome slugger vaulted Leonard from star to legend. Slipping punches and throwing one clean, accurate shot at a time was enough to earn Mayweather a victory, and most likely an even bigger payday for the rematch. It will not, however, earn him the transcendent appeal he clearly craves.
The Sabres couldn't have closed the weekend in a fashion more different from the way they started it unless they had lost Game 6 at Madison Square Garden. The offense erupted after five games of dormancy, with Dmitri Kalinin, Jason Pominville, Jochen Hecht and Drury pouring four goals past Lundqvist in less than 10 minutes of the second period.
Instead of frantically chasing the Rangers in the final moments, Buffalo wound up clinging to a 5-4 lead that Ryan Miller wouldn't surrender.
With the memory of the Feb. 22 brawl that made national headlines still fresh, Buffalo's series against Ottawa promises to deliver a wildly bruising dust-up. But it's tough to imagine the Sabres producing more thrills than they did last weekend.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||May 8 2007|