It was the Sabres' finest game of this memorable playoff season. It was one of their most valiant performances in the 29-year-history of the franchise. It was also one of their most heart-breaking nights.

The Buffalo players were determined not to allow Dallas to celebrate a Stanley Cup victory in Marine Midland Arena. Brett Hull, one of the great goal scorers in NHL history, cracked that determination with a goal with just 5:09 remaining in the third overtime.

It was 1:31 this morning.

Hull's goal won the game and the Cup. Joe Nieuwendyk won the Conn Smyth Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs.

Yet it was Dallas goalie Ed Belfour who turned the Sabres' planned flight back to Dallas into a pumpkin. Less than a minute after the game ended, as the Stars tumbled off their bench on to the ice in a happy frenzy, the Buffalo crowd began chanting "Eddie! Eddie!"

It was a classy salute to a nemesis from a Buffalo crowd fighting its own fatigue and a numbness born of disappointment, which was creeping into its psyche. Their team deserved better. As the second overtime approached its close, speedy Geoff Sanderson was dragged down in the vicinity of the Dallas goal as the Sabres were on the attack. The mugging created a two-on-one break for the Stars, which Dominik Hasek muted.

The two referees, Terry Gregson and Bill McCreary, called their last penalty, a slashing call on Sabres' captain Michael Peca, with 33 seconds remaining in the second period. Once Peca came out of the penalty box in the beginning of the third period, there was no law between Perry Street and South Park Avenue, the arena's boundaries.

Crusty old hockey men love to observe that the officials "don't decide the outcome of playoff games" by calling penalties. Well, what Gregson and McCreary did was affect the outcome of a Stanley Cup championship by NOT calling any penalties.

I lost count of penalties which should have been called on both teams but weren't. The number could have reached two dozen. "Officials don't decide the outcome of playoff games" my clavical.

The Sabres emphatically outplayed Dallas. After the second overtime the team which couldn't buy a shot in the first five games had 50 shots to 43 for the Stars. It went beyond statistics. Buffalo was the better team in most categories.

One category in which the Sabres were not better was goaltending. Belfour was superb. More superb than Hasek, who had some mind-bending stops. Hasek allowed a "soft" goal by Jere Lehtinen at 8:09 of the opening period. Had he placed his body closer to the right post, Lehtinen's shot would not have gone in the net and Buffalo would have gone home a winner in regulation time.

It doesn't sound like much, but this was another of those "one false move" games.

The Sabres needed a Triple "A" game from Hasek. They got a double "A" game, more than good enough to send Buffalo into a seventh game under ordinary circumstances. These were not ordinary circumstances. Belfour gave Dallas the Triple "A" game it needed.

Hasek stoned Hull on a couple of amazing saves. He made similar stops on Nieuwendyk and Pat Verbeek. On the winning goal, he was screened by Dixon Ward's body in the scramble in front of the net. Besides, Hull's skate may have been in the crease, nullifying the goal. You couldn't tell the Sabres otherwise.

Illegal goal? It wouldn't be surprising, considering the non-officiating on the ice for the game's last 60 minutes.

Nevertheless, the Stanley Cup is in Dallas. If Belfour had played anything less than a Triple "A" game, the Sabres would be packing for their last trip to Texas. The Buffalo crowd was correct in its salute to the opposing goalie. Without him, Hull wouldn't have had a chance to score the decisive goal, legal or illegal.

"Eddie just wouldn't allow us to lose," said Ken Hitchcock, the Dallas coach.

The Buffalo crowd recognized that, even though ruefully, when it put up that classy chant. They, too, should be saluted for that.