The Sabres franchise earns its second berth in the Stanley Cup finals with a 4-2 win over the Maple Leafs in Toronto to take the Eastern Conference finals four games to one.
The Leafs take 1-0 and 2-1 leads on heaven-sent goals, but the Sabres twice come back to tie it, on a pretty backhand by Curtis Brown and a homely backhand by Vaclav Varada.
Then, with 10:37 to go in the third period and the game tied at 2, Varada appears to give Buffalo the goal they will need to make history. But the video replay officials rule that he made a kicking motion with his right foot to send the puck past Curtis Joseph. They are right.
Twelve seconds more than two minutes later, Erik Rasmussen scores one of the biggest goals in Sabres' history. At 10:01 p.m., Brian Holzinger takes a pass at his own blue line from Jason Woolley, flashes into the Toronto zone and throws out the anchor at the bottom of the left circle before taking a bad-angle shot that Cujo, hard against the left post, sticks away. But he sticks it away right to Rasmussen at the bottom of the other circle. The rookie quickly chips a backhander off the top of Joseph's glove and into the roof of the Maple Leaf net with 8:25 to go, and the Sabres lead for the first time in the game, 3-2.
Thirteen minutes later, at 10:14 p.m., with just over a minute to play, with Alexei Zhitnik in the box for making a nice open-field tackle on Sundin and with the Leafs' net empty, Dixon Ward sends the puck down the ice on a journey that seems to last as long as Buffalo's wait to get back into the Stanley Cup finals.
The puck flies over two Leafs at center in 1979, when George Ferguson of the Penguins scored an overtime goal in the Aud to eliminate the Sabres, rolls over the blue line in 1985, when the Quebec Nordiques scored three goals in the final nine minutes in a decisive game five to win the game and the series, and heads through the slot in 1998, when Joey Juneau slipped the puck under the arm of Dominik Hasek to break our hearts one more time.
One-hundred seventy-five feet, 24 years and four days, and two generations of Sabres' fans who have known nothing but playoff disappointment later, the wait is over.
Captain Mike Peca will have none of the hoopla, though. "There's one trophy that you work hard to hold over your head, and that didn't look like the Stanley Cup," he said of the Prince of Wales Trophy.
This Day in Sabres History :: May 31
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