by Jim Riggs
February 21, 1998
Remembering Sabres That Went Farthest
The Bills must have felt that way after they lost super Bowl XXV and they were fortunate enough to return to the Super Bowl for the next three years. They lost them all, but at least they returned.
The Sabres have not been so fortunate. Since 1975 they have never been back to the Stanley Cup Finals. That had to be very frustrating for the members of the team and one of them agreed with that observation before speaking at Monday night's Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame Induction Dinner.
"I think that we all felt that," said Don Luce, who was the Sabres' fourth-leading scorer that season. "Looking back that first year (when Buffalo went to the finals), we felt we had a good team, that we were going to go back."
However, the Sabres never did and it's not like they went through a down period. The team finished second in its division for the next four seasons followed by back-to-back first-place finishes. But when it came to the playoffs, the Sabres never returned to the finals.
"You finish second and you look at the teams you're playing and you feel confident you can beat them," Luce said about the seasons after 1974-75. "You run into a hot goaltender or some of those series were two-out-of-threes. That can be very upsetting because you're used to a four-out-of-seven. That's a better
judgment of teams, but when you get two-out-of-three or three-out-of-five, it's tough."
However, a look at the playoff results show the Sabres won most of those short best-of-three series. But the one that stands out was in 1979 when Buffalo was eliminated by Pittsburgh.
"The one year we were playing Pittsburgh in the first round in a two-out-of-three series and we were (tied) 1-1 (in games), Luce recalled. "We lost our goalie to a freak injury and I think with that team we probably could have won it all. They were very close."
Instead, the Penguins defeated the Sabres in overtime in the third game at Memorial Auditorium.
After the disappointment of 1978-79, the Sabres bounced back with a team that went 47-17-16 in 1979-80 and is considered by some to be better than the 1974-75 Stanley Cup finalists. However, it was the 1974-75 club that set the stage for the Sabres' later successes and Luce was happy to be a part of it after
being traded there.
"When I was in Detroit I asked to be traded," Luce said. "I was informed I was going to go to one of two teams and one of them was Buffalo. I was very pleased to come to Buffalo. It was an opportunity to prove that I could play in the National Hockey League."
He did in 1974-75 by finishing with his most points ever, 76 on 33 goals and 43 assists, and he set a team plus-minus mark that still stands at plus 61. He also set a team record with eight short-handed goals.
Luce wasn't the only Sabre wanting to prove something. The 1974-75 squad had a lot of young players, such as Jim Schoenfeld, Rick Dudley, Danny Gare, Bill Hajt, Lee Fogolin and the French Connection line of Rene Robert, Gil Perreault and Rick Martin.
"I think we had the confidence," Luce said. "We went into that year wanting to prove we were good players. The whole team had an attitude of wanting to prove you were a good player in the National Hockey League. When you have all the players trying to prove something you have a much greater
chance of winning."
And that was the season it happened. After a slow start of 3-3-1, the 1974-75 Sabres went 18-3-1 in their next 22 games and continued to roll.
"When we started to win during the season you get confident and you start believing in yourselves as a team and it carries you through," he said.
But it didn't carry the Sabres through to capture the Stanley Cup.
"Even to this day I think we had a better team than Philadelphia," he said. "When you have a good team and you don't get there, it's frustrating. When you're playing, you don't understand why until you look back and say there's certain things happen that cause you not to get there. But that's sports."
Luce, who is now the team's director of player personnel, has had plenty of time to look back.
"What you realize after (playing) is, it's things like injuries," Luce said.
"Probably injuries are the key thing that keep you from getting back there (to the Stanley Cup Finals). I think a couple of teams after that were as good as that team, almost.
"You get an injury in the season and it causes you to drop down in the standings. It's all a matter of breaks, if you get an injury or hit a slump at the wrong time (in the playoffs) it can really cost you."
However, Luce is proud of the fact the Sabres remained very competitive even though they never returned to the finals.
"There's a lot of teams and the same thing could happen to them," he said. "They're doing well or they get there and they never seem to get back for a while.
"We got to the semifinals a couple times and then we went through a dry spell, but again, it's sports."
Luce is surprised the Sabres stayed as competitive for as long as they did after the 1974-75 season.
"When your team is good for a length of time, there's going to be a downturn, especially in hockey when you're drafting," he said. "You're not going to be drafting high so it's going to be hard to replenish the talent that you lose as they get older. We went into a dry spell when our talent ran out and then you
have to develop that talent again and you do a cycle again. It takes a longer time to build up."
Now Luce would like to see the Sabres return to finals while he's a member of the front office and he's confident it can happen.
"The players we have now are real competitive and we're going to be there," he said.