A few months ago it was brought to my attention that this year marked the 20-year anniversary of the most infamous moment in the Buffalo Sabres’ 50-year history – “No Goal”.
20 years. It’s been 20 years since the Sabres were arguably robbed of a chance to win Game Six of the Stanley Cup Final and go back to Dallas for a potential winner-take-all Game Seven against the Stars. 20 years since all of Western New York learned about the infamous skate in the crease rule. 20 years since Buffalo’s players, coaches and front office executives (not to mention the fans) felt like they had been punched in the stomach by both the Stars and the National Hockey League.
Admittedly, it felt odd to write that last paragraph. Back then, I was 10 years old during that run to the Final and it was my first lengthy exposure to hockey. Today, while many things have changed for both the NHL and the Sabres, to me it still kind of feels like it happened yesterday.
While most pundits looked back and reminisced on the goal and its surrounding controversy – and it’s debated upon countless times – I decided to do something a little different. Instead of dredging up an old, rehashed argument of whether or not the goal should have counted (in my opinion it shouldn’t have, but I digress), I wanted to focus on the rest of that tightly contested game to see what might have happened if a few bounces had fallen into place for both the Sabres and Stars.
In order to do so, I watched the entire broadcast from ESPN and took notes throughout. I will empty out that notebook in this story and will touch on some major events that took place during that contest. Playing the what-if game is always a dangerous one, but here we will do something similar.
Before we start, here’s a little background on each team heading into that fateful night/morning of June 19th and 20th of 1999:
Regular season – The Sabres, who were coming off of their first trip to the Eastern Conference Final in 18 years, started off slowly with just a 2-3-2 record (including a season-opening victory against, ironically, the Dallas Stars). A home and home sweep over the Toronto Maple Leafs started a 17-3-3 run over their next 23 games, and by December 27 Buffalo found themselves in first place in the Eastern Conference with a 19-6-5 record. Second-year bench boss Lindy Ruff coached at the All-Star Game in January, becoming just the third coach in franchise history to do so.
A second-half swoon, however, combined with a 12-game absence by goaltender Dominik Hasek dropped the Sabres from first place to seventh with a 37-28-17 record by the time the playoffs began.
Awards and notable achievements – Hasek set career-best marks for goals-against-average and save percentage, won the fifth of his six career Vezina Trophies and was the runner-up for the Hart Trophy to Jaromir Jagr, ending his bid for a third straight MVP. Rob Ray was the King Clancy Trophy recipient for his dedication to the community. Miroslav Satan finished with a career-high 40 goals and was seventh in the NHL in the category. Captain Michael Peca ended the season with a personal-best 27 goals, and Curtis Brown, Michal Grosek, Vaclav Varada, Wayne Primeau and Jason Woolley all had career-years up to that point in their playing days.
Transactions – Defenseman James Patrick was signed as a free agent during the summer. Holdout Donald Audette was traded to Los Angeles for a second-round draft pick (Milan Bartovic). Right winger Matthew Barnaby was sent to Pittsburgh for center Stu Barnes. Defenseman Mike Wilson was shipped to Florida for fellow rearguard Rhett Warrener and a fifth-round pick (Ryan Miller). Left winger Joe Juneau was acquired from Washington for prospect Alexei Tezikov, and center Derek Plante was dealt to Dallas for a second-round pick (Michael Zigomanis).
Playoffs – Two notable events happened during the Sabres’ opening round sweep of the Ottawa Senators: Sens captain Alexei Yashin was held pointless throughout the series by Peca and company, and Satan suffered a bruised foot in Game Three, forcing him to miss nine games.
The Boston Bruins had eliminated the Sabres five out of the last six times they had faced each other in the postseason going into 1999 (the only time the Sabres had emerged victorious was in 1993, on a sweep capped off by Brad May’s “May Day” overtime goal). Buffalo ended up beating Boston in six games in the conference semifinal.
Buffalo was without Hasek for the first two games of the Eastern Conference Final against the Maple Leafs due to a groin injury, but Dwayne Roloson held down the fort until both Hasek and Satan came back in Game Three. The Sabres eventually eliminated their cross-border rivals in five games to advance to their first Final appearance since 1975.
Lines, defense pairings and goaltenders for Game Six
Randy Cunneyworth-Wayne Primeau-Eric Rasmussen
Dixon Ward-Michael Peca-Vaclav Varada
Joe Juneau-Curtis Brown-Miroslav Satan
Geoff Sanderson-Brian Holzinger-Stu Barnes
Jay McKee-Darryl Shannon (Shannon was filling in for Warrener, who suffered a broken ankle in Game 5)
Alexei Zhitnik-Richard Smehlik
Jason Woolley-James Patrick
Regular season – For the second straight year, the Dallas Stars ended the regular season as winners of the President’s Trophy with a league-best mark of 51-19-12. It was the third of five straight years in which the Stars would finish among the three best teams in the Western Conference and would also be the first of back-to-back trips to the Final (it was also the third time in the history of the Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars franchise that the team had advanced that far).
Awards and notable achievements – Goaltenders Ed Belfour and Roman Turek would share the William M. Jennings Trophy for the least goals allowed during the regular season, Jere Lehtinen won the second of his three career Frank J. Selke Trophies for best defensive forward and Joe Nieuwendyk was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Transactions – In addition to acquiring Plante during the season, right winger Brett Hull was signed over the summer to a three-year deal worth $17 million. Bob Bassen was sent to Calgary for Aaron Gavey, center Tony Hrkac was acquired from Nashville for future considerations and defenseman Doug Lidster was signed as a free agent during the season.
Playoffs – After sweeping the Edmonton Oilers in the first round, Dallas knocked out the St. Louis Blues in six games in the second round and got past the Colorado Avalanche in seven games during the Western Conference Final.
Lines, defense pairings and goaltenders for Game Six
Stars coach Ken Hitchcock tinkered with his wing spots a bit throughout Game Six, resulting in the line combinations looking like this:
Jere Lehtinen-Mike Modano-Brett Hull/Pat Verbeek
Jamie Langenbrunner-Joe Nieuwendyk-Verbeek/Dave Reid
Reid/Blake Sloan-Guy Carbonneau-Mike Keane
Benoit Hogue-Brian Skrudland-Sloan/Hull
Derian Hatcher-Richard Matvichuk
Darryl Sydor-Sergei Zubov
Shawn Chambers-Craig Ludwig
- After Buffalo took Game One in overtime, the Stars won the next two contests followed up by a Sabres win in Game Four. Dallas emerged victorious in Game Five at the Reunion Arena, setting up Game Six at the then-named Marine Midland Arena.
- This was the first Stanley Cup Final since 1994 to not end in a sweep.
- Each game was decided by two goals or less.
- The top five scorers for the Sabres had just four combined points in the Final.
- Buffalo set a Final record for the least shots on goal by a team in Game Three.
- The Sabres entered Game Six having not scored on their last 17 power play opportunities. They would end the series with 19 unconverted chances with the man-advantage.
- Conversely, Dallas hadn’t given up a power play goal in their past 30 chances on the road heading into Game Six.
- Satan, the Sabres’ leading goal scorer with 40 in the regular season, didn’t find the net in his last eight games of the 1999 playoffs. Modano, the Stars’ leading point getter, also didn’t score a goal all series long and didn’t find the back of the net for 11 straight games.
- Hasek and Belfour both finished with goals-against average marks of under two, which was the first time in the expansion era that both opposing goalies in the Final did so and it was also the first time it had happened since 1945.
- Buffalo ended the season with a record of 8-2 in one-goal games, while Dallas was 8-8.
- 98 percent of the minutes played in the series were either tied or a one-goal difference. Dallas had a two-goal lead for five minutes throughout, none for Buffalo.
- Shannon was the only NHL defenseman to notch a plus/minus rating of +20 or better between 1996-97 and 1998-99.
- Barnes became the first player to score seven playoff goals for a team after not scoring for that team in the preceding regular season.
- In the calendar year of 1998, Dallas and Buffalo had the two best records in the NHL – each having played 75 games. Dallas had a 47-18-10 mark while Buffalo went 41-18-16.
- It was a tight, defensive game early on – to no one’s surprise, given each team’s proficiency in that area. Hockey was much more of a dump-and-chase game back then, not much puck possession was involved and as a result, it was much slower.
- Hatcher and Hogue both had nice chances early on, both were stopped by Hasek.
- Lehtinen got the Stars on the board first with 11:51 remaining. The goal, his 10th of the playoffs, was a harmless-looking shot flipped at Hasek that hit the inside of his knee and somehow went in.
- “Dallas is the best team in hockey at making younger, faster teams look slow.” – Bill Clement on the ESPN broadcast.
- Hogue tripped Zhitnik right in front of referee Bill McCreary with 7:39 left to go, but no call was curiously made.
- Sabres did get traffic in front of Belfour and crashed his crease nicely, but to no avail.
- Peca had a good pass to Juneau in the slot, but his wrist shot was stopped by Belfour with just over five minutes to go.
- Juneau tried to make up for his missed opportunity with a phenomenal pass to Holzinger in front of multiple defenders, and Holzinger almost got a backhanded shot off but fanned on it.
- Dallas won 15 faceoffs to seven on Buffalo’s part in the first – most of them in their own end (mainly due to the prowess of Modano, Nieuwendyk and Carbonneau, all future Hall of Famers).
- Buffalo had 11 shots in the first period (they had nine or fewer shots in each of the previous 10 periods).
- The Sabres turned up their forechecking game in the second and got good pressure on the Stars’ skaters throughout the period. Ditto that of their neutral zone play.
- In response to the clogged neutral zones, Dallas would chip the puck in and chase after it rather than go through bodies. The result was a lot of icing calls.
- With 18:32 left in the second, Hull hooked Sanderson in the neutral zone several times, but no penalty call.
- About 30 seconds later, Barnes drove to the net and lost the puck. Belfour pokechecked it right to Holzinger, who just missed a rebound.
- With 16:00 left, Patrick faked a shot and got Carbonneau and Keane to go down, but his shot hit Primeau and went wide of the net. It was the first of many scoring chances by Patrick on the night.
- Zubov had a tremendous scoring chance during a Stars power play – skated by everyone and was stopped blocker-side by Hasek. Then a slap shot from the point hit Hasek in the chest.
- Zhitnik hit a crossbar and had a one-timer saved by Belfour.
- Sanderson attempted a backhand on a two-on-one chance midway through the period, Belfour made the save.
- A shorthanded breakaway by Keane was stopped by Zhitnik as the puck was knocked away before the shot was taken.
- Belfour robbed a one-timer by Barnes from the faceoff circle and also made a nice stop on Shannon.
- Midway through the second, shots were 22-13 in favor of Buffalo. It was the first time in the Final that the Sabres had 10 shots in back-to-back periods.
- Hull and Hogue had a two-on-one but the pass was well-played by Patrick.
- Buffalo got a power play afterwards, but Dallas utilized good discipline by taking away any shooting lanes. The Sabres’ best chance with the man-advantage came on a one-timer off a faceoff by Woolley, but the shot hit Varada in the head and careened away.
- The Sabres hit a series-high in shots on goal with 23 by late in the period.
- A little slap shot by Barnes with a bouncing puck beat Belfour on his blocker side to tie the game at one. It was the result of a blown coverage by Carbonneau, he tried to double Primeau with Hatcher and got burned.
- Heading into the third period, Dallas had outscored their competition 30-13 in that stanza of play during the playoffs.
- Games One, Two, Three and Six were all tied in the third period.
- A shot from the point by Sydor was snared out of the air by Hasek.
- Hull broke up a two-on-one on the backcheck by knocking away a pass from Cunneyworth.
- Varada was tripped by Matvichuk while barreling in on Belfour. Belfour then threw a punch, but once again there was no penalty called.
- Matvichuk then stopped on a three-on-two break.
- Satan had a one-timer at the faceoff circle stopped by Belfour.
- Barnes tripped by Modano with 1:07 left in the third. No penalty.
- Dallas won 47 faceoffs in regulation, Buffalo 32.
- Belfour made a nice save with seven-plus minutes to go.
- Zhitnik had two chances to win it. One shot was blocked earlier in the period, another missed the net with a wide-open shot from the faceoff cicle.
- Patrick had three more chances to win it for the Sabres in this period. His slapshot from the point early was denied by Belfour and another was stopped by the Stars’ goaltender shortly afterwards.
- Nieuwendyk and Hull had a two-on-one, but Nieuwendyk’s shot was blocked by Shannon.
- With 17:44 left, the Sabres had their best chance to send the series to a Game Seven when Patrick unleashed a one-timer towards Belfour off a faceoff that was won by Holzinger. Unfortunately for Buffalo, that shot hit the crossbar and deflected away. Patrick had zero goals in 54 playoff games going into the contest.
- Verbeek was stopped by Hasek on an excellent rebound chance and a short while later (7:51 left to play) Verbeek was denied again after his slapshot from the half-wall was knocked away by Hasek.
- With 5:11 left, Dallas caught Buffalo on a line change. With a three-on-two break, Modano drop-passed to Lehtinen, who then gave it to Hull. Hull’s backhand, however, was saved by Hasek.
- Woolley had a nice chance near the left faceoff circle on a wrist shot, but Belfour was again there to make a save. 30 seconds later, a wrist shot that was nearly fanned on by Carbonneau was blocked by Woolley.
- Zubov hauled down Brown with 51 seconds to go, and it should have been called for interference. Especially because McCreary was standing in front of the play and saw it happen, but no penalty.
- A little more than three minutes into the period (17:55), Brown got tripped by Modano, but no penalty call.
- Buffalo’s last good chance to win the game came about two minutes when Rasmussen’s wrist shot went right into Belfour’s midsection.
- Dallas responded to Buffalo’s strong play in the second overtime with a better performance in the third. Mostly on defense, there were few scoring chances by any team in this period.
Then came the most infamous moment of the night.
It all started from a neutral zone turnover. With a little more than five minutes to go, Holzinger won a faceoff and Smehlik tried to pass to Juneau but was intercepted by Hull. After a bouncing puck was pokechecked away by Hasek, Chambers dumped it around the boards. Hull collected it and dropped it back to Modano to try and start a cycle.
With Zhitnik all over him, Smehlik came up and took the puck away. He then turned around and tried to pass it up the ice, but no one was there and the puck hit Modano’s stick and went to Lehtinen. Lehtinen then noticed that Holzinger was too busy watching the puck instead of paying attention to anyone coming into the area near Hasek. Except one person was that area after all: Hull. Lehtinen promptly passed the puck up to a wide-open Hull, and… well, we all know what happened next:
Dallas would parlay their Stanley Cup win into another run to the Final a year later, but were upended by the New Jersey Devils in six games. For practically the last 20 years, the Stars have mostly been contenders, save for a few lean seasons here and there.
Buffalo hasn’t come close to playing for a championship since. Including two runs to the Eastern Conference Final in 2006 and 2007, the Sabres have reached the playoffs just six times since the turn of the millennium and are currently mired in an eight-year playoff drought.