As if it were a college football Saturday in early September, thousands of fans arrived outside the RBC Center early on Sunday afternoon to tailgate and barbecue in the parking lots in 90? weather before Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.
For a while, it did not look as though the Carolina Hurricanes' rabid supporters would have much to celebrate for the remainder of this holiday weekend.
"It felt like one of our worst games of the series," Rod Brind'Amour, the Carolina Hurricanes captain, said.
But Cory Stillman's power-play goal 8 minutes 46 seconds into overtime capped a comeback from a two-goal deficit as the Hurricanes rallied for a 4-3 victory.
Carolina leads the best-of-seven series 3-2 and can advance to the NHL Stanley Cup finals against the Edmonton Oilers with one more victory. Game 6 is scheduled for Tuesday night in Buffalo.
"We've been down before 3-1, many times our team, and many times we've come back," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said, referring to the 3-1 deficit the Hurricanes found themselves in less than two minutes into the second period. That was when Laviolette decided to switch goaltenders. His decision to start Martin Gerber in place of Cam Ward in Game 4 seemed to inspire the Hurricanes to victory in Buffalo. In Game 5, Laviolette's replacing Gerber with Ward 1:55 into the second period was the turning point.
Ward ensured there would be overtime by stopping Maxim Afinogenov on a breakaway with 4:04 remaining in regulation.
"I don't know if it saved the season, but it certainly saved the game," Laviolette said. "The season's not over."
Ward then made two sensational stops in overtime before Stillman beat Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller from the slot during a scramble. Ward stopped all 15 shots he faced.
The Sabres had won their first four overtime games this postseason. Even though they were again playing without three of their top six defensemen, the Sabres raced out to an early lead but could not hold on.
Buffalo dominated the latter part of the third period and the early stages of overtime before J.P. Dumont was whistled for hooking Matt Cullen at 7:12 of overtime, which led to Stillman's goal, his second overtime winner of these playoffs. The goal came after the puck had caromed hard off the end boards.
"You don't draw those plays up," said Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff, who was not happy with the seven power plays the Hurricanes were awarded.
Ruff was pleased with the way his team had played on Sunday, after a 4-0 loss in Game 4. "It's disappointing to lose, but I'm not disappointed with that game at all," he said of Sunday's loss.
The Sabres could not have been disappointed with their start. The book on Gerber during the playoffs has been to shoot high on him and from long range. That was how the Montreal Canadiens had success against Gerber in the first round, prompting Laviolette to replace him with Ward, a 22-year-old rookie.
And that was how Buffalo scored its two first-period goals and took a 2-1 lead into the second period.
When Buffalo defenseman Toni Lydman made the score 3-1 on a breakaway, Laviolette removed Gerber, who allowed three goals on 13 shots.
After skating off the ice, Gerber went back to the dressing room and did not come out for the remainder of the second period.
The goalie switch seemed to invigorate the Hurricanes.