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Monday, April 30, 2007
Sabres-Rangers game good for game of hockey

By E.J. Hradek
ESPN The Magazine

NEW YORK -- While the Buffalo Sabres and their fans would surely disagree, Sunday was a pretty good day for hockey in the good old U.S. of A.

No, it wasn't a good day for the NHL in the USA because the big-market New York Rangers grabbed a 2-1 double-overtime win over the small-market Sabres in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinal.

Actually, the outcome had nothing to do with that.

New York Rangers
The Madison Square Garden crowd had plenty to cheer on Sunday.

It was a great day because the wildly entertaining and sometimes controversial game (what is a distinct kicking motion, anyway?) was played on a grand stage at Madison Square Garden and available via national network television at a (day) time that anyone, everyone, could watch.

The NHL rarely has such an opportunity. In this spot, the league needed a good show. The Sabres and Rangers didn't let them down.

Both teams dug in and battled deep into a second overtime. The game featured all the best things about the sport. It had the skill, speed and determination that make hockey, especially playoff hockey, very special.

And, guess what? Nobody hit anybody over the head with a stick. I'm sure that was a big disappointment for the relentless anti-puck crowd. On this day, the league shined. If you were paying attention to the bigger picture, it was a win-win for the league. Of course, not everybody could be expected to see that picture.

"It's hard for me or the guys in this room to appreciate that right now," said Sabres co-captain Chris Drury, still soaked in sweat after the bitter loss. "Stepping back, though, I could see where it helps our game."

Nearly 50 years ago, in a different America, the NFL took a huge leap forward on a gray Sunday afternoon in New York. The NFL championship game between Johnny Unitas' Colts and Frank Gifford's Giants went to overtime, captivating an eager television audience. The game would later be dubbed, "The Greatest Game Ever Played." The NFL never looked back.

Now, I'm not saying this game will have anywhere near that kind of impact. For starters, television is much different today. There are literally hundreds of channels for viewers to skip through. There is a channel for just about every niche. (Has the Dog Walking Channel made it to dish and digital yet?)

But for a league that seemingly has nothing but bad luck when it comes to television, they caught a nice break on Sunday afternoon. They had a great game televised to the most possible viewers. That's the most you -- or Gary Bettman -- could ask for.

"During the national anthem, I was taking it all in," Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell said. "It's a pretty historic building and I was thinking what a privilege it was to play in the game today.

"The crowd was loud. It's the kind of crowd that you really want to silence."

On this afternoon, which started to turn to early evening, the Sabres couldn't quiet the crowd. In fact, the only silence could be found in the visitors' locker room.

New York Rangers
Marcel Hossa, left, celebrates with Michal Rozsival.

Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller, who'd been terrific all afternoon, leaned back stoically in a folding chair. His goalie gear spread in front of him, he wore the blank expression of defeat on his face as he composed himself for a Q&A session with the media hoard.

On the other side of the room, teammates Derek Roy and Drew Stafford sat quietly wondering what else they might have done to change the outcome.

Looking at those Sabres, you might have thought they were the team that was down 2-1, or even 3-0, in this series. In their own quiet way, you could see they were already shifting their focus to the next game.

Down the hall, the mood was different. The Rangers -- desperately needing a win to stay alive in the series -- smiled the winner's smile for the first time in this series.

New York captain Jaromir Jagr, who scored one goal and effectively screened Miller on the winning goal (scored by defenseman Michal Rozsival), talked about staying in the series. When he was done, he looked at goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who was still taking questions from reporters. "You gotta stop some pucks," Jagr said to his goalie with a laugh.

On this afternoon, a very good afternoon for the NHL in the USA, Jagr could take that minute to have a laugh. His Rangers found a slight edge to win a very good hockey game. On Tuesday night, when the teams meet in Game 4, it might well be different. After all, Drury's Sabres didn't pile up 113 points by accident.

If you were watching on Sunday afternoon, the league hopes you'll tune in to see what happens next. If it's as entertaining as Game 3, you won't be disappointed.

Game notes
Sabres centers/co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere each did some good work in the faceoff circle. Drury won 19-of-32 draws, while Briere won 15-of-22 face-offs. ... Rangers fans haven't let the club's successful season stop them from booing defenseman Marek Malik. The 31-year-old Czech really doesn't deserve the nasty treatment from the home folks. Since signing with the club as a free agent in the summer of 2005, Malik has been one of the team's most reliable blueliners. This year, in 69 regular season games, he posted a very strong plus-32 rating. There's no question that he has been guilty of making some costly mistakes -- like his errant pass which led directly to the tying goal in the third period of Game 2. On the whole, though, Malik has been a pretty steady defender for the Rangers. Head coach Tom Renney called the fans reaction to Malik, "disappointing."

E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.