The best team won.
Or did they?
True to the form that has plagued the National Hockey League all season, a controversial goal that was not reviewed propelled the Dallas Stars to the Stanley Cup championship.
"That's the league's worst nightmare," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. "The puck was in the crease, the supervisors tried to explain to me that that was a good goal."
"All I wanted was a review," Ruff said. "His (Hull's) foot is in the crease when they scored the goal.
"If they wanted to slow things down they would have reviewed. They're talking about changing it (the rule), but the rule is in place. All I want is a review. That was the worst case scenario. Pandemonium set in and they can't take it back."
Ruff appears to have a case. Officials huddled at the scorers table apparently poised to go upstairs, but it never happened. There was some conversation, and referee in chief Bryan Lewis later said the play was reviewed in the video replay booth and it was ruled that Hull had continuous possession of the puck.
That may be hard to accept this morning. The pain of losing the Stanley Cup at home -- both for the Sabres and their legions of Western New York fans -- is still too real to even deal with fully right now.
The thought that it may have been won on a tainted goal is an embarrassment the National Hockey League may never live down.
Replays indicate Ruff had a point. There was a moment when the puck appeared to exit the Sabres crease yet Hull was still in it. Under normal interpretation of the rules, that would automatically call for a video replay.
It did not appear to happen.
"I feel as a coach I have to do everything to help my team," said Ruff. "That's why I went back on the ice. As hard as my team played they deserved an answer. I went to the officials, I wanted Bettman to review it. They deserved an answer.
"You can't explain the feeling," Ruff said. "I thought all along we would get the bounce, get the break."
Instead, they might have got hosed.
The controversy may forever cloud this series. It also ruins a splendid performance from both teams.
In the end, even before Hull scored to push the Stars to a 2-1 triumph in the second longest overtime game in Stanley Cup finals history it was all in the numbers. A stronger, deeper, more talented team got a helluva fight from a Sabres team that gave us memories that will last a lifetime.
That point was driven home the moment Stars captain Darian Hatcher accepted the Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman. The crowd greeted Hatcher with boos, but quickly changed them to cheers in a significant gesture of good sportsmanship.
Behind the scenes, however, Ruff was raging.
If the Stars truly did win, it was because they had a more potent and talented offense, a bigger, stronger, deeper and more experienced defense. They won because they had a coaching scheme that negated Buffalo's best asset, its speed and because they had a goaltender who made all the big saves when they mattered most.
That's going to be additional fodder for the second guessers down the line. That Belfour, the goalie everyone thought was a meltdown waiting to happen, outplayed the
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Kelley: Sabres' loss tough to take because of how they battled
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great Dominik Hasek through much of the series will in time obscure the fact that the Sabres offense never really solved the Dallas defense; that the Sabres power play never really got untracked or that some of the Sabres' young guns sagged under the weight of overwhelming pressure.
In the end, goalies, even reigning Vezina and Hart Trophy winning goalies, get that kind of scrutiny. Hasek blinked just a bit in Game Five, but he appeared to have his eyes taped shut while letting in the first goal in Game Six, a weak effort from Jere Lethinen in which the Dominator swung away from the post like a sagging gate. As momentum killers go, Hasek couldn't have done worse if he had a gun.
He played much better the rest of the way, but the miscue was made all the more painful when the game went to overtime. One save not made would prove to be the difference at the end of regulation time. In the end, one called not made appeared to do the same. That will hurt for a long time.
The Stars played like the champions of the National Hockey League because they had to. There was no walkover after their memorable series with Colorado in the Western Conference final. They didn't sweep, they didn't cruise. If anything, they played with a certain fear, a fear born out of respect for what the Sabres brought to the series. That made for dull hockey at times. Hockey that was devoid of the kind of risk taking that so often leads to great goals, but it's a credit to the Sabres that the Stars had to play that way. Had they not fought and scrapped for every inch of ice, had they not thrown a defensive blanket over the likes of Joe Nieuwendyk, Mike Modano, Brett Hull, and Jamie Langenbrunner, it's likely the Stars would have run wild offensively. They truly are that good.
Yet for the most part, the Sabres did a magnificent job in shutting them down.
Right up until Hull scored.
In time this team will take its place there alongside all the others, another name on a loser's list, but it will take a lot of time. This Sabres team came from near nowhere to scare the heck out of a Stars club that everyone "knew" was supposed to win. It beat the Northeast Division's best team and then soared past frequent tormentor Boston and neighborly rival Toronto. Along the way it showed us the meaning of heart, the goodness of determination and the value of playing as a team even when seemingly all the sporting world is dedicated to me, myself and I.
None of that changes the ultimate outcome. Maybe Dallas deserves its Stanley Cup championship. Over the course of two grueling months it beat every team that stood in its way. The Stars showed the stuff of which championships are made.
But the Buffalo Sabres can take pride in the fact that every step of the way they were right there with them.Too bad the National Hockey League will never be able to validate it.