Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The 1996-97 Season

If the plan by the management of the Buffalo Sabres was to build support for a new arena, the idea came to a successful conclusion in the fall of 1996. That's when the new Marine Midland Arena opened, a mere block from Memorial Auditorium.

Most of the Bandits from the championship team made the walk. "There's no doubt, we liked the chemistry of last year's team," Bandits coach Les Bartley said.

Jim Veltman didn't, and he'd be missed. Veltman and his wife went on an 18-month humanitarian mission to Uganda. Mike Hasen also was missing from the roster of the 1997 team, but the rest of the group was intact. League-wide, Charlotte had disappeared from the league after a dismal year.

When it was time to start the season on January 4, the Rochester Knighthawks came in to spoil the party. The Knighthawks took a 19-17 decision before a sellout crowd of 18,595, a number that set a league attendance record.

"We had a lot of extra-man opportunities and we took advantage of them," said Rochester's Paul Gait, whose team capitalized on 16 Buffalo penalties with eight power-play goals. "When you play five against four, you should get open shots by moving the ball around. We played pretty smart and they took penalties down near the end that cost them."

That was the start of an up-and-down season in which the Bandits never did get a great deal of momentum. Buffalo split two games with Boston, and then won three in a row to move to 4-2. But the Bandits lost that momentum with defeats at the hands of New York and Philadelphia. The latter, a 16-8 thumping right in HSBC Arena, sent quite a message.

"As soon as we started getting into that penalty stuff, that was the end for us," Bartley said. "They get eight power-play goals, that's the game right there. Everything else is fairly even on the (stat) sheet. People start taking things into their own hands, playing foolishly, and what you come up with is a game like this."

Wins over the Wings and Baltimore merely got Buffalo above .500 for the 10-game season at 6-4. That was a game behind Philadelphia for first place in the six-team league, and tied for second with New York.

John Tavares led the team in scoring, like he had for every other season, with 37 goals and 66 points. It was another first-team MILL effort. Darris Kilgour (second team all-league) was second at 42 points, followed by Ted Dowling at 39 points. Rich Kilgour had 35 points in only nine games. Troy Cordingly suffered a severe ankle injury midway through the season, and that hurt the offense. Coach Les Bartley gave most of the goaltending work to Ross Cowie, as he played in 410 of the 600 minutes and went 5-4. Pat O'Toole was relegated to backup duty.

The Bandits hosted the Saints in the first round game on April 5, and Buffalo made quick work of New York in a 19-10 romp. Cowie was named game MVP. "I don't know that a goaltender could play better than Ross did for the first three quarters last week," Bartley said, referring to Cowie's 42-save performance. Dowling had four goals and Tavares and Luke added three each. The game was played before 12,155.

That set up the championship game a week later, and the Bandits caught a break -- so they thought when they discovered that Rochester had surprised Philadelphia, 15-13, in the other semifinal. It meant that the Wings would not play in a title game for the first time since 1991. The Bandits' hopes of defending their title, though, came to an end when Rochester took a 15-12 victory before 18,055. Steve Dietrich of the Knighthawks was the game MVP. Tavares had four goals, but no one else had more than two.

"Too many penalties by us, too much good goaltending by them," said Tavares, whose team took 14 penalties for 31 minutes compared to 11 for 22 for the Knighthawks. "We had our opportunities but we weren't scoring. Sometimes it's hard to keep everybody focused on the game at hand when that happens."

The Bandits needed to enjoy the hoopla of a championship game, because they wouldn't be seeing one for quite a while.

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