Sabres a thorn in Sens' past

DON BRENNAN -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:41 AM ET

You might still remember it as the ice cream cone that left a bad taste in your mouth and an empty feeling in your stomach. All after it fell to the ground.

"I needed an inch more, that's all I needed," Ron Tugnutt said yesterday. "I had half of it, but the glove was old and it collapsed ... it just wasn't strong enough to hold the puck."

Today's Senators are much stronger, of course, and Tugnutt, now a Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster, sees them faring quite differently in this upcoming playoff showdown with the Buffalo Sabres.

But he and many others also thought they would win the first one. The Senators finished the 1996-97 season with a 31-36-15 record and 77 points --15 behind first place Buffalo -- to gain their initial post-season berth.

Led by five goals from a young Swede named Daniel Alfredsson, the upstarts took the Sabres the distance before losing the deciding game in overtime, on a slap shot by Derek Plante that Tugnutt had a piece of before it slipped through his grasp and over the goal line.

"It was a heartbreaker," recalled Wade Redden, a 19-year-old rookie at the time. "Everyone was playing so well ... we had to play well as a team, just to get to that point. We had a close group of guys. We should have won that series."

As close as they came, the Senators left nary a mark on the Sabres two springs later in the only other post-season battle between the two teams.

"I remember being a healthy scratch for Game 1, I remember being used as a forward in Game 2 and I remember losing in four," said Chris Phillips, who along with Redden and Alfredsson (plus then-Sabres Vaclav Varada and Dominik Hasek) are the only current Senators to play in that 1999 opening-round series between Ottawa (103 regular season points) and Buffalo (91 points).

"It was a little more of the older, defensive system, where the team that scored the first goal had a really good chance of winning the game. Playing against Dom ... I remember us, seemingly anyway, trying to to make perfect plays to try and beat him, instead of just peppering him with as many shots as possible. He played great that year."

Alexei Yashin, who had set a Senators regular season record with 44 goals, was held scoreless during the four games, which Ottawa lost by scores of 2-1, 3-2, 3-0 and 4-3.

And Tugnutt, whose 1.79 goals against average was the best the league had seen in 27 years, started Games 1 and 4, was passed over for Damian Rhodes in Games 2 and 3.

"I expected to play, and it didn't happen," he said.

"I was very surprised."

In winning just three of 11 playoff games against the Sabres, the Senators have been outscored by a 26-19 count.

There could be at least that many goals in the first four games of this series. "I think the team that is going to be the most physical will win," said Tugnutt. "They match up speed wise. Offensively, I think they're pretty close to even. Buffalo's power play is very strong, and so is Ottawa's. On defence, Ottawa has the advantage, when healthy."

A key, as is often the case, will be goaltending. Ray Emery, 23, had played just six NHL games before this season. The Sabres' Ryan Miller, 25, had played only 18.

Both established themselves this past regular season and are coming off their first NHL playoff series.

'A YOUNG FUHR'

"Ray reminds me of a young Grant Fuhr in that, if his team is up 6-5, he won't give (the opposition) that sixth one," said Tugnutt, referring to the Hall of Fame goalie who helped the powerhouse Edmonton Oilers to a run of Stanley Cups. "It could be one of those series."

While the Sabres embarrassed the Flyers by trouncing them 7-1 in Philadelphia to take their first round series in six games, Tugnutt says "Ottawa's penalty killing is much better than Philly's and Ottawa's defence is a ton more mobile."

The bottom line? "I think it will go five or six games," said Tugnutt. "But Ottawa should be able to handle them."

After nine years of developing, you'd think they would have a strong enough grip to do it this time.


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