10 April 2007

Playoff preview: Buffalo Sabres (1) vs. NY Islanders (8)

I'm going to post a series of playoff previews here - mostly focusing on the East (since I'll be writing a column as such at SportsBlurb and SportingNews) but trying to get at least some picks down for the West so we can laugh at them in a week. Starting off with Sabres / Isles....

Series A - #1 Buffalo vs. #8 NY Islanders
Date Time (ET) Location Network
Thu., April 12 8:00 p.m. at Buffalo TSN
Sat., April 14 7:30 p.m. at Buffalo VERSUS, TSN
Mon., April 16 7:30 p.m. at NY Islanders VERSUS, TSN
Wed., April 18 7:30 p.m. at NY Islanders VERSUS, TSN
*Fri., April 20 7:00 p.m. at Buffalo VERSUS, TSN
*Sun., April 22 7:00 p.m. at NY Islanders VERSUS, TSN
*Tue., April 24 TBD at Buffalo TSN


This intrastate matchup (albeit over 300 miles apart) appears to be a classic David vs. Goliath: the first team to clinch a playoff birth against the team getting in on the last afternoon. Do the Islanders have any shot at all in this fight? Intrigue can be found in a few former Sabres' returning to a site of past glory...

Why Buffalo should win the series: Anyone who has followed the NHL even peripherally this season knows about the Sabres - they led the NHL with 53 wins, 113 points, 308 goals scored, four 30-goal scorers, etc. etc. It's easy to cherry-pick any sort of impressive statistic from their season. Their so-called third line consists of Thomas Vanek (43 goals, +47), Maxim Afinogenov (23 goals in 56 games), and Derek Roy (63 points, +37). The Sabres are finally healthy and have to put the immensely talented Tim Connolly on their fourth line. Their defence is seven-deep, led by Henrik Tallinder and the enigmatic but peaking Dmitri Kalinin. Ryan Miller is a goaltender whose numbers don't tell his story; much like Grant Fuhr of the 80s Oilers, Miller plays behind a team willing to trade chance for chance knowing that he is one of - if not the best - in the world on odd-man rushes (winning a league-high 10 shootouts this season). In all, Buffalo is the most talented team in the league and has their sights set on nothing less than a Stanley Cup.

Why Buffalo
should be afraid: Every team is gunning for Buffalo and will have nothing to lose. Buffalo is expected to win, and the expectations are that the first few rounds should be easy. Imagine a game one loss in Buffalo on Thursday night - there will be panic in the media and the stands. Will that affect coach Lindy Ruff and the team? Furthermore, for all their success Buffalo has a tendency to often come out flat in period one, which has forced them into countless comeback situations this year. The fact that they succeeded in coming back for most of them may not have much bearing during the short and intense postseason. The Sabres need to play hard and smart right out of the gate as when they get overly fancy with the puck, they tend to play a soft game. Their dazzling play comes only as a result of hard forechecking and solid positional play. If they try to do it the other way around, the Islanders could threaten them.

New York should win the series: No team is on a higher high entering the playoffs than the Islanders, who captured the eighth and final spot in the most dramatic way possible - an 82nd game shootout victory that eked them into eighth place to the dismay of southern Ontario hockey fans. Yes, you could file a bit under the "just happy to be here" camp, but coach Ted Nolan has built a worthwhile reputation of getting his teams to play above and beyond their capabilities. Fans shouldn't overlook the talent on this team, led by 40-goal scorer Jason Blake and deadline acquisition Ryan Smyth. With four other 20 goal scorers, the Islanders are capable of applying offensive pressure.

New York should be afraid: For one, the status of number one goaltender Rick DiPietro is uncertain. Suffering from concussion symptoms, he was to see a neurologist yesterday in hopes that he'd be able to appear in the series. In the meantime Wade Dubielewicz has been the emergency starter of late and has been stellar. It may be too much to expect him to carry the team for another round. Defence is an issue with New York - Marc-Andre Bergeron was picked up from Edmonton mid-season and has been a pleasant surprise as a limited but offensively-skilled point man. In all, though, the defencive corps has been a patchwork and they'll need to play a perfect positional series and batter the Sabres' relentless forwards at every turn to have a chance.

Random useless but fun playoff facts: The Sabres and Islanders have met three times in the playoffs with the Islanders taking each series, but they have not met since the spring of 1980 when the two teams met in the semifinals.
While the Wales Conference champion Sabres steamrolled past Vancouver and Chicago, they had to wait over a week to face the Islanders who used that momentum to win the first three games of the series. Buffalo came back to win the next two but the Islanders sealed their first trip to the Stanley Cup finals with a 5-2 win on home ice in game six.

My pick: In terms of talent and skill, there's a huge
edge to Buffalo, as well as playoff experience. However I don't put too much stock in the experience card - Buffalo seemed to do alright last year as the young upstarts. This would be the ultimate Cinderella-story: Buffalo's ex-coach Nolan comes into town with the former leading scorer (Miroslav Satan) and pulls off the upset of the year. I think they can exploit the Sabres' inconsistencies enough to take one game but the road probably ends there, as Buffalo cruises in 5 games.

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