Inside of many hockey players is a frustrated golfer. Or you would think that based on the number of players who hit the links in their spare time.
In their first 25 years of existence, the Buffalo Sabres did their part to bolster the hockey-golf connection, with the team regularly scheduling tee times in mid-to-late April as a result of early elimination from the playoffs, or, less regularly, due simply to a failure to make the post-season party.
The Sabres of recent vintage have had a little less time to enjoy the great outdoors, given their extended playoff runs in 4 of the past 5 post-seasons. That run of good fortune will come to an end this year, however, as the club will find itself in the uncustomary position of missing the playoffs altogether. A late-season surge by the Sabres was simply not enough to overcome a season of mediocre (or worse) performances, with the team officially being eliminated in the final week of the 01-02 season.
Perhaps as a show of solidarity, the majority of Buffalo’s North American prospects have hung up their skates for the summer, as well. The golf courses of North America will seemingly be littered with hockey players and coaches who list the Sabres as their employer or affiliate.
For starters, the Sabres’ minor league club, the Rochester Americans, barely got their undergarments wet, as they quickly dropped a best-of-three series to the Philadelphia Phantoms, 2-0. This expedited ouster comes a year after the Amerks’ suffered another quick elimination at the hands of this very same Philadelphia club, three games to one. Pointing out prospect highlights on a team that has won exactly one playoff game in 2 seasons seems like a fools errand, but RW Norm Milley notched 3 assists while finishing with a +2 rating in the two games.
In the junior ranks, 5 of 8 Sabres’ prospects have cashed in their chips for this season. C Derek Roy (Kitchener-OHL, 0-4 vs. Guelph), C Chris Thorburn (North Bay-OHL, 0-4 vs. Toronto), RW Sean McMorrow (Oshawa-OHL, 1-4 vs. Belleville), G Ghyslain Rousseau (Baie-Comeau-QMJHL, 1-4 vs. Cape Breton), and C Paul Gaustad (Portland-WHL, 3-4 vs. Seattle) all suffered the agony of defeat in the first round of their respective league’s playoffs. Gaustad provided the only really notable performances from this group, continuing his role as the heart and soul of the Winter Hawks.
As for the others, McMorrow provided the main playoff highlight for Oshawa, scoring the OT winner in the Generals only playoff victory, while Thorburn’s playoff adventure was most notable for the fact that these were the final games being played in North Bay. After 20 years of existence, the Centennials will re-locate to Saginaw, MI next season. Roy and his streaky Kitchener teammates experienced some negative momentum in what had to be a very disappointing opening round sweep at the hands of division rival Guelph, while Ghyslain Rousseau had a playoff to forget in Baie-Comeau’s ouster at the hands of Cape Breton. Rousseau was yanked in a couple of the games, and received some direct criticism from his coach for the poor playoff performances.
All is not completely lost on the CHL front, however, as 3 Buffalo prospects advanced beyond the first round in their quest to compete for the Memorial Cup.
In the WHL, the Kootenay Ice, featuring Buffalo defensive prospect Gerard Dicaire, have advanced to the Western Conference finals following a 4-0 sweep of the Seattle Thunderbirds. Dicaire has been the power play QB that the Ice had been seeking, with Gerard picking up 9 assists in 11 playoff games. Gerard is still soft in his own end, but he isn’t being asked to be a defensive kingpin, either. Kootenay defeated Prince George in a hard fought opening round series, 4 games to 3, which allowed them to advance to the semis vs. Seattle. They will face the Kelowna Rockets in the Western final.
Another defensive prospect for Buffalo, Ryan Jorde of the Moose Jaw Warriors, is the other Buffalo prospect that had been actively competing in the CHL playoffs. That run came to an end this evening, however, as the defending Memorial Cup champs, the Red Deer Rebels, ousted the upstart Warriors with a 4-2 victory, a score that was identical to the series outcome. Ryan appeared in 7 of Moose Jaw’s first 11 playoff games, missing 2 games in the Warriors’ first round defeat of Regina, to go along with his 2 scratches in the Red Deer series. There was no information as to whether Ryan was a healthy scratch, or whether he missed the games due to an injury.
The final “active” junior prospect is one who has yet to play a playoff game, although that could change soon. Jason Pominville, the offensive dynamo playing for the Shawinigan Cataractes of the QMJHL, injured his leg late in the regular season, causing him to miss the Cataractes 4-1 series win over Drummondville. Jason recently had the cast removed from his broken leg, and is scheduled to begin skating on April 29th, pending approval from the Sabres. Assuming this approval is received, Pominville should be available to play for Shawinigan in May should the Cataractes defeat Victoriaville in the next round.
Buffalo’s prospects in the college ranks didn’t fare any better, as both G Ryan Miller and LW Mike Pandolfo bowed out in the NCAA regional leading up to the Frozen Four. Miller, a junior at Michigan State, completed another stellar season in goal for the Spartans. Unfortunately for MSU, Ryan can’t score the goals, as well, which might have come in handy in the Spartans 2-0 loss to Colorado College in the NCAA West Regional game. This loss followed the disappointment of losing the CCHA championship to Michigan, 3-2, which prevented MSU from winning their 3rd straight CCHA title. Miller must now decide whether to continue his college career or sign with the Sabres, but before he does that, he’ll take part in the World Championships over in Sweden as a member of the U.S. squad.
Mike Pandolfo will probably be a little relieved that he doesn’t have to play any more games against the University of Maine, as the Black Bears proved to be a very big obstacle to the post-season success of Pandolfo and his Boston University teammates. Maine defeated BU in the Hockey East semi-finals 4-3, then proceeded to eliminate the Terriers from post-season play by an identical 4-3 score in the NCAA East Regional. Pandolfo was BU’s leading scorer this season, the final season of his college career. Buffalo now has to decide if they want to sign the big forward to a contract, but it might be a couple months before that decision is made.
All this playoff futility is not necessarily indicative of things to come for the Sabres, of course. Hockey is a team sport, with games being won or lost mostly on the overall performance of the team, although talented individuals on those teams can certainly play a large role in the outcome of a game or series. Perhaps this playoff ugliness could best be described in one word:
Thanks to Donald Dumont, Jeff Bromley and Gene Hartman for providing info on some of the prospects.