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An Extraordinary Year

Wow. Has this season been an amazing ride? From pole to pole this has been a year for the ages, starting from the early winning streak in October and culminating this past weekend, when the Sabres clinched their first ever President’s Trophy.

Come October, two banners will be raised high to the rafters of HSBC Arena: the President’s Trophy and the Northeast Division crown. Of course, the job is not finished. To a man, the team has set a goal of winning the Stanley Cup, which would add two additional banners: the Eastern Conference title and, of course, the biggest banner of them all.

Looking back at 2006-2007, we recall our five most epic and memorable games of the campaign:

1. February 22: Buffalo 6, Ottawa 5 (shootout)

All hell broke loose after Ottawa’s Chris Neil blindsided Chris Drury. The melee that followed, including both goaltenders joining in on the fisticuffs, drew worldwide headlines. When it was over, Buffalo had won the game, but had lost their heart and soul to injury. Now they would have to soldier on with eight regulars missing from the lineup.

2. March 13: Pittsburgh 5, Buffalo 4 (shootout)

Buffalo had just concluded an uninspiring homestand, losing three straight and looking bad in the process. They then hit the road, with the Senators and Devils climbing in the standings and hot on the Sabres’ tail. Moreover, emotions were running high at Mellon Arena, as earlier on this day the announcement was made that the Penguins were staying put in Pittsburgh. But when Chris Drury banked in the tying goal with 6.2 seconds left to force overtime, a huge point was gained, and even though the game was lost in a shootout, the old Sabres were back.

3. October 13: Buffalo 3, Detroit 2 (shootout)

Most Buffalo fans didn’t get to watch this game; they were instead listening to it on transistor radios, as a freak snowstorm knocked out power to much of the region. On this night, it was Ryan Miller against the old master, Dominik Hasek, and Miller put on a Hasekesque performance, making save after save and turning away 41 shots. Ales Kotalik’s shootout goal was the winner, deflating the partisan Red Wing fans.

4, March 23: Buffalo 5, Toronto 4

You can credit Toronto’s missing the playoffs on this outcome. The Leafs were leading 4-1, their fans who made the trip to HSBC Arena were chanting “overrated,” jeering Ryan Miller and waving their silly tin foil Stanley Cups. But then the Sabres got going, Vanek cutting the deficit at 5:27 of the third. Briere scored a few minutes later, then Pominville tied it with a pretty blue line pass. Twenty seconds later, Drew Stafford netted the game winner. For Buffalo fans—jubilation. As for Mats Sundin and his Leafs teammates—speechless.

5. November 2: Buffalo 5, Boston 4 (shootout)

After just suffering their first loss of the season, the Sabres were out of it in this one, trailing 4-1 late and all seemed lost. But two late goals by Maxim Afinogenov, and then the tying tally by Ales Kotalik with 95 seconds left gave the Sabres their comeback. Kotalik’s shootout goal completed the improbable victory.

Come Thursday night, the seating bowl at HSBC Arena will be darkened at the opening, and if the game night crew follows the scripts of past seasons, we will hear the strains of Hurricane 2000, along with the highlight reel: May Day...Rene Robert in the fog...Derek Plante in game seven…Jason Pominville scary good…Dave Hannan in the wee hours. So what if it’s been cold this April…these are the kind of chills Sabres fans will never get tired of enjoying!

TARO SEZ (1st round prediction edition):

Andrew and Peter make their picks and prognostications for the first round games in the East, and AV editor Geoff Kelly joins in on the fun. At the conclusion of the first round, Taro will report back who picked best.

■ (#1) Buffalo vs. (#8) New York Islanders (Reg Season Buffalo 3-1)

AHL prospect goalie Wade Dubielewicz’ rise to prominence is a feel good story late in the season, but the playoffs are a different story, and look for the Isles to be overwhelmed by all of Buffalo’s weapons and playoff experience.

Andrew’s pick: Buffalo in 4

Peter’s pick: Buffalo in 6

Geoff’s pick: Buffalo in 4

■ (#2) New Jersey vs. (#7) Tampa Bay

Reg Season Tampa Bay 3-1 (one win in shootout)

Martin Brodeur is the goaltender anyone would want in the playoffs, and New Jersey’s stifling defensive style is well suited for the postseason. Nonetheless, Tampa Bay and all their offensive firepower is always capable of a few surprises.

Andrew’s pick: New Jersey in 7

Peter’s pick: Tampa Bay in 6

Geoff’s pick: New Jersey in 6

■ (#3) Atlanta vs (#6) New York Rangers

Reg Season Atlanta 3-1 (two wins in overtime)

Give Atlanta the goaltending edge with Kari Lehtonen, but New York’s Jaromir Jagr firing on all cylinders could make this series very competitive.

Andrew’s pick: New York in 6

Peter’s pick: Atlanta in 7

Geoff’s pick: Atlanta in 5

■ (#4) Ottawa vs (#5) Pittsburgh

Reg Season Pittsburgh 3-1 (2 wins in shootout)

Both these teams were red hot going into weeks leading to the playoffs. This should be one of the most entertaining and evenly matched series of the opening round.

Andrew’s pick: Ottawa in 7

Peter’s pick: Pittsburgh in 4

Geoff’s pick: Pittsburgh in 6