25 April 2007

Playoff preview: Buffalo Sabres (1) vs. New York Rangers (6)

to be published at SportsBlurb.com


Wednesday, April 25 7:00 p.m. NY Rangers at Buffalo VERSUS
Friday, April 27 7:00 p.m. NY Rangers at Buffalo VERSUS
Sunday, April 29 2:00 p.m. Buffalo at NY Rangers NBC
Tuesday, May 1 7:00 p.m. Buffalo at NY Rangers VERSUS
* Friday, May 4 7:00 p.m. NY Rangers at Buffalo VERSUS
* Sunday, May 6 2:00 p.m. Buffalo at NY Rangers NBC
* Tuesday, May 8 7:00 p.m. NY Rangers at Buffalo VERSUS

Series overview:

Each of these clubs finished their first round in relatively quick fashion – the Rangers waxing the Atlanta Thrashers in four easy games while the Sabres survived five surprisingly arduous games to eliminate the New York Islanders. Both teams are well-rested and healthy. Although the Sabres won each of the four regular-season meetings between the teams this year, three went to overtime and all were played before New Year’s Day, so throw those stats out the window. Do the Rangers have enough to end the Sabres’ run here? Or is Buffalo’s skill and attack too much for yet another New York team?

Why Buffalo should win the series:

This will sound familiar and will probably be repeated as long as
Buffalo stays alive this spring, but Buffalo should win simply because they’re the better team - President’s Trophy, most goals-scored, etc. etc. But what may differentiate the Sabres now from two weeks ago is a renewed sense of commitment; the series against the Islanders was supposed to be an easy warm-up for further rounds. They will now begin the Rangers’ series without any assumptions as to how the series will progress – look for a more consistent effort from the talented forward lines - in particular, snipers Jason Pominville and Maxim Afinogenov began to find their games late in the Islanders’ series. An unsung team defensively, Buffalo’s top pairing of Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman will likely match up against the Rangers’ potent top line (featuring Jaromir Jagr). Buffalo’s true blueline stars against the Islanders were Brian Campbell and Jaroslav Spacek, who were only on the ice for one even-strength goal against for the entire series (and that only in the fifth game). When all else fails (and it rarely does), Ryan Miller has proven himself capable of rescuing the team from poor play in their own end (evidenced by his miraculous end-of-game save in game five on Miroslav Satan).

Why Buffalo should be afraid:

Yes, their opening series only went five games and there were periods of complete domination by Buffalo but the domination was never for as long as they’d have liked, as the Islanders ended up keeping each game quite close. The Sabres were never able to use their relentless offense to stick a dagger in the Islanders once they got a lead, and the team needs to build on that experience to help them in the next series. Unfortunately, if they play with mixed intensity in this series…they will have far greater offensive talent to deal with from the Rangers. Buffalo needs to pay close attention to the Rangers’ forecheck and job number one needs to be getting the puck out of the defensive zone as easily as possible without resorting to trying for the big play. Furthermore, if they let the Rangers’ other lines generate offense and spark (Matt Cullen and Martin Straka only combined for one goal against Atlanta) it could put undue pressure on Buffalo’s defensive play as a whole, and detract from their greatest skill – moving the puck up ice and generating a scoring attack. If the Rangers can effectively cycle and forecheck in the offensive zone while beating them up in challenges for the puck, the Sabres can be thrown off their game.

Why New York should win the series:

First and foremost, if Henrik Lundqvist doesn’t play like he has over the past three months, the Rangers will exit this round quickly. There’s no reason to think that he won’t, though, as he has been arguably the best goalie in the league since January. Jagr is a known commodity, and if possible I think he’s actually underrated. There are still residual feelings from his rather listless time with the Washington Capitals but since coming to New York he has renewed his first-ballot Hall of Fame credentials (and got jobbed out of the Hart Trophy last season). He is still in every way a superstar and with open-ice will destroy even the best of defenses. The more-surprising revelation has been linemate Michael Nylander, who did everything against Atlanta: scoring eight points and notching a +7 in just four games. The 14-year NHL veteran had career highs in goals, assists, and points this season and has been a perfect compliment at center for Jagr. If this line can dominate games and even just create constant pressure in the Buffalo zone and draw penalties, the Rangers have a chance to take this series.

Why New York should be afraid:

While few, if any, teams have the depth that the Buffalo Sabres have, the Rangers have a real danger of being exposed as thin in this series – they will be overly reliant on relatively few players. One, their top line must produce both in points and offensive pressure. If they are shut down, it’s over. Two, Lundqvist must be sharp for 60 minutes each night. A Tim McCarver-like master-of-the-obvious statement to be sure, but even when the Rangers have a lead he must stay focused as Buffalo had more comebacks from being down two-or-more goals than any team in the league this year. Three, they need to play disciplined hockey. Much has been made over the acquisition and play of agitator Sean Avery this season, and he has already gone on record that he’s been psyching himself up over the Sabres (read: looking to play dirty and get under their skin; channeling as much of Ken Linseman as possible). Truth be told, if Avery doesn’t play a smart game and the Sabres don’t let his antics get to them, he should be a non-factor for New York. The Rangers will have to play at their peak level to be able to shut down Daniel Briere/Jason Pominville/Jochen Hecht and Derek Roy/Thomas Vanek/Maxim Afinogenov…but the so-called “other” lines for Buffalo are as dangerous as most teams’ top two.

Random useless but fun playoff facts:

These cross-state rivals have only met in the playoffs once in the 19 seasons they have both qualified for the playoffs since 1973. In 1978 they met in the old best-of-three preliminary round, where the superior Sabres prevailed two games to one. New York’s defeat of Atlanta was their first playoff win since 1997 when Wayne Gretzky helped the club to the Conference Finals. Buffalo has won nine series in that span and currently stand at 114-118 in their often-checkered playoff history.

My pick:

The Rangers have won 17 of their last 24 games, counting the playoffs, helping to render the Sabres' season sweep meaningless. Often times in a playoff series the end outcome is influenced more by role-players and otherwise unheralded heroes. Can the Rangers bring a quality second and third line attack? Will the Sabres succumb to the likely physical play they will be exposed to? Is Lundqvist capable of stealing two games in Buffalo? Questions we will find the answer to in a week or so…but based on what we’ve seen thus far, it’s hard to pick against the Buffalo Sabres. Their depth and skill are too much for the Rangers to handle, and although I see the Rangers giving the Sabres as much trouble as the Islanders did – and their higher skill level perhaps winning them an extra game – the Sabres should get through this series to make a return trip to the Eastern Conference finals. Buffalo in 6.

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