The Empire Sports Network broadcast Sabres games in the 2003-2004 season. This was Buffalo's first full season under the ownership of Tom Golisano and the team performed much better than they had with the uncertain clouds of bankruptcy and relocation looming over their heads. Buffalo went 37-34-7-4 (W-L-T-OTL) and narrowly missed the postseason. However, the Northeast division was particularly strong in '03-'04 and the Sabres finished in the division's cellar for the third consecutive year. Empire averaged a strong 3.2 rating for the season, which was good enough to be the 2nd highest rated TV market in the United States for NHL games finishing only behind Detroit.
The 2004-2005 campaign was canceled due to the NHL lockout. The Empire Sports Network (which had been severely weakened in the wake of the Adelphia Communications corporate scandal) was off the hook for their annual $9.5 million rights fee paid to carry Sabres games. Adelphia decided to eliminate the Empire Sports Network in January 2005 and it signed off for the final time two months later. Obviously, this left the Sabres in limbo.
After the lockout, Buffalo signed a unique temporary deal with MSG to broadcast games. MSG normally runs the broadcast production, but because of proximity issues they allowed the Sabres to control the whole broadcast, sell its own advertisements, and produce its own postgame show. Despite initial confusion with zoning issues, it turned out to be an enormous success for both sides. The Sabres exceeded expectations on the ice. They were among the biggest surprises of the NHL season and the city of Buffalo became infatuated with a fast and exciting group of "nobodies". Buffalo drew a 4.9 local rating, which topped Detroit and was the highest rating of any team in the United States. The ratings continued to soar in the playoffs as the Sabres made an inspiring run to the Eastern Conference Finals that eventually ended when a Sabres squad decimated with injuries squad fell to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of the ECF.
The enormous ratings were not overlooked. MSG and the Sabres renewed their contract in 2006 coming to an agreement on a 10 year contract extension. Financial details were not disclosed.