The 1970s Buffalo Sabres came close, yet so far

Rick Stewart

Despite a Hall of Fame line and some great squads in the 1970s, the Buffalo Sabres couldn't overcome road woes, nor the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders.

As the cliche goes, each year only one team can end its season happily. In the NHL that means several very good teams fall short. When it happens year after year as luck and dynasties conspire against them, their stories are lost to history.

The 1970s Buffalo Sabres are one such team.

That decade is remembered more for the Philadelphia Flyers' back-to-back (and thus far only) Stanley Cup victories and the four-year Montreal Canadiens dynasty that finished out the '70s. But in the shadow of the teams that actually saw their name etched on the Cup were three New York-based franchises that were near-forgotten contenders.

Like their upstate neighbors in Buffalo, the New York Islanders built a strong expansion team in the 1970s, but their glory would come a little later. The New York Rangers were frequently in the mix but could never reach the finals -- outside of a John Davidson-led run in 1979 -- and their glory would never arrive.

Likewise the Sabres, with a cast of thrilling forward stars who became Buffalo legends but could never get their names on the Cup.

Perhaps Buffalo's first trip to the playoffs, in just their third season, was a sign of how their decade would go: In 1973 they lost, in six games, to the eventual champion Montreal Canadiens. After missing the playoffs in 1974, the Sabres would finish first or second in their division and in the top five of the NHL for the next seven consecutive seasons.

Yet during that run, they would be eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers twice (in the 1975 Cup finals, and in 1978) and be eliminated three times by the Islanders ('76, '77, '80). The Sabres were a great team that kept running into greater teams.

An offense led by the "French Connection" line of Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert and Rick Martin later added eventual 50-goal scorer Danny Gare. Hard-nosed Jim Schoenfeld was an inspirational leader from the blueline. But the goaltending -- from Gerry Desjardins to Roger Crozier to Don Edwards to Bob Sauve -- was rarely as good as their opponents, and the Sabres rarely won in the playoffs away from the intimate Memorial Auditorium. (From 1973 to 1979, they won just five playoff games on the road.)

When the Sabres came closest in 1975 -- losing all three finals road games in Philadelphia -- it seemed they were on the cusp of glory and their day would come. But the Flyers and Islanders would block their path, and the Canadiens and Islanders would dominate the next eight years.

Befitting a bridesmaid, the Sabres would be remembered for a prolific line of stars, but not for the games they won.

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