It seemed like such a simple idea.
Convene a group of the semi-sophisticated sports fans who regularly comprise the BillStuff coverage team during the National Football League season and go watch a hockey game.
Not just any hockey game, mind you, but Game 1 of the first-round playoff series between the Buffalo Sabres and the Philadelphia Flyers -- the first postseason contest by any Western New York major-league team in five years.
The plan was to also have a roundtable discussion on next weekend's NFL draft during the slow moments, producing fodder for an exotic multi-sport column.
Except that there were no slow moments during Buffalo's 3-2 double-overtime win Saturday night.
There were, however, 90 shots on goal, 23 penalties, a dread-inducing momentum shift, some brilliant goals, some even more spectacular saves and one of the most devastating hits you'll ever see.
Our goal was to be as close to the action as possible without actually paying for a ticket. So we gathered at the Cobblestone, a tavern around the corner from HSBC Arena born during the greatest modern Sabres playoff run of them all, the magical Stanley Cup tournament of 1999.
While the place throws legendary pre-game parties, it was all but empty when we got there, with the crew preparing for the post-game rush. Outnumbered by the wait staff, we did have an unobstructed view of Tim Connolly's swipe and perfect backhand past Flyers goalie Robert Esche to open the scoring 5:20 into the first period.
Seeking a little more in-game color, we tromped across downtown Buffalo and found it at the Pearl Street Grill, a walk that took exactly as long as the intermission between the first two periods.
Moments after our arrival, Jay McKee rifled Buffalo's second goal of the night, and the second playoff tally of his career, through a crowd of orange jerseys.
Given Esche's history of playoff shakiness, it was time to start taking an easy win for granted. Which is exactly what we did.
It seemed like the perfect time to work in a little football talk, except for two things. All the round tables were filled and almost anywhere we stood seemed to block the view of those filling them.
Apparently, the long postseason drought caused some fans to forget the basic rules of watching sporting events in public places.
Rule No. 1: If you can find a place to sit and see the television simultaneously, good for you. Consider yourself lucky.
Rule No. 2: If you can't, or if the place gets so crowded that the only place people can stand is in front of you, THEN STAND UP.
The second rule was apparently lost on one man, who tapped me on the shoulder shortly after our arrival.
"Hey, could you guys move over?" he whined. "My wife's having trouble seeing."
I looked at him to make sure he was serious. Judging from his pleading scowl, he was. Then I looked behind him. Seated there was not only a pouting woman sitting with her arms crossed, but also a girl who looked to be about 8 years old.
Which brings us to Rule No. 3: A crowded bar, even one with attractive wood decor and an extensive menu, is no place for an 8-year-old, especially during a playoff hockey game.
For a moment, I considered explaining these rules to him, but decided it would be more useful to humanity to do so in this space. So there you go.
While we sought an open area where we could stand without blocking the view of comfort-obsessed members of the gathering, Philly's Mike Knuble cut the Sabres' lead in half.
And instead of crumbling, Esche was swatting aside every shot that came near him. It was starting to look like the kind of game the '99 Sabres thrived on, in reverse -- a hot goalie keeps his team close until it gets a couple bounces and steals a win it has no business thinking about.
That spring's on-ice drama provided Western New York with an extended adrenalin rush, one that didn't end until a somewhat controversial goal added the area's legacy of sporting heartbreak.
While I'd already written off any serious football discussion, another BillStuff staple -- the wing review -- was in jeopardy. With no place to sit, or even set the basket, blue cheese or napkins, consumption was impractical, at best.
So we again took to the street, hoofing it to the Washington Square Tavern, a few blocks north of HSBC Arena. Again, we hit the dead spot between the coming and going crowds. This time, though, it was an ideal setting -- a straight-on view of the big screen and custom-made wings (see below).
On the downside, Simon Gagne delivered the inevitable for the Flyers with less than two minutes left, netting an overtime-inducing power-play goal.
Through more than one-and-a-half extra sessions, the Sabres kept peppering Esche and he continued his Bernie Parent imitation. But the break that would send a lone Flyer in on Buffalo's Ryan Miller and send a sellout crowd home with its spirit crushed never occurred.
By the time Daniel Briere redirected Jochen Hecht's pass past Esche, who had already made 55 saves, during the second overtime, what once looked like an easy win had become a classic, a victory that portends another wild spring in Western New York. If there were any fans left who hadn't gotten over lingering bitterness from the lockout that claimed last year, they have now.
In the tradition that makes playoff hockey great, though, it won't be easy. Or predictable.
BILLS DRAFT PREVIEW: The Bills will draft some very large men and pay them a lot of money.
Some will become very good players, others will prove bitter disappointments.
At least one will do something very foolish off the field and get his name in the news for it.
Pundits won't wait until the new players actually put on a uniform, instead rushing to apply grades that mean nothing until September, maybe later. I'm going to go the hasty evaluators one better and not even wait for the actual selections to give Marv Levy's first draft as Buffalo's general manager a solid B.
HIT OF THE MILLENNIUM: R.J. Umberger, it's a bad idea to skate with your head down.
Brian Campbell's thunderous check a little more than midway through the first overtime lullabied the Philly rookie, triggered a series of skirmishes along the boards and incited the crowd to such a frenzy that even the MSG Network cameras were shaking.
It also eradicated any lingering idea that the big, tough Flyers might push around the delicate, speedy Sabres.
WING REVIEW: The Washington Square Tavern's offerings were nicely spiced and very meaty, triggering a debate among the BS coverage team. While Tim, our senior wing analyst, thought they were too big, I thought their size added a fried-chicken element to their quality that brought them up to a B-plus.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||April 25 2006|