09 May 2007

Eastern Conference finals preview: Buffalo Sabres (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (4)


#1 Buffalo vs. #4 Ottawa
Thursday, May 10, 7:00 p.m. at Buffalo
Saturday, May 12, 8:00 p.m. at Buffalo
Monday, May 14, 7:00 p.m. at Ottawa
Wednesday, May 16, 7:00 p.m. at Ottawa
* Saturday, May 19, 2:00 p.m. at Buffalo
* Monday, May 21, 7:00 p.m. at Ottawa
* Wednesday, May 23, 7:00 p.m. at Buffalo

Series overview:

If the NHL powers-that-be wanted to cherry-pick two teams to feature the skill and excitement of the post-lockout era, they couldn't have done better than this – the 113 point Buffalo Sabres against the 105 point Ottawa Senators is the marquee match-up that neutral hockey fans have wanted to see all year; featuring the two best teams in the Eastern Conference facing off for the right to play for the Stanley Cup. There's a lot of intrigue and anticipation in advance of this meeting - will the two highest scoring teams in the league deliver an offensive explosion? Will the bad-blood from this season spill over into the playoffs and result in more free-for-alls like we saw from these two back in February? Can Ottawa exercise their playoff demons and finally become conference champions after years of unfulfilled expectations? Will Buffalo be able to turn up their game to the high standards they set for themselves in the regular season? Can either team legitimately be determined a favourite in this series?

Why Buffalo should win the series:

Going by nearly every number possible, Buffalo - until proven otherwise - is still the best team in hockey. There's no need to review all the stats again - simply, this team can score in bunches and from every line, an attack Ottawa has yet to come close to facing with the very top-heavy offenses featured by the Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils. And while the Sabres didn't exactly fill the net during their first two rounds, the last two games against the New York Rangers were possibly the best they played thus far, leading to the impression that they're finding their "playoff legs" so to speak. The primary reason Buffalo found their game was due to their return to aggressive puck pursuit - they have to be willing to take risks and force the opposing defence to take hits in their own zone to clear the puck. By dictating the style of play to their advantage they not only create numerous quality scoring chances, they in turn prevent any play in their own zone, keeping their defence fresh.

Perhaps most encouraging to the team, and their fans, is that they have no injuries to speak of (in stark contrast to last season). What injuries they may eventually face they now can counter with unprecedented and unmatched depth, most notably standout rookie Drew Stafford who, with the return of spirited forward Paul Gaustad, finds himself in the press box strictly due to the numbers game. If Buffalo needs to turn to Stafford in this series, it can hardly be deemed a drop-off.

With all the talk about how explosive Buffalo's offence is, they actually do have one aspect of the team that is underrated. After last Friday's miracle finish in Buffalo (where Chris Drury scored with seven seconds left to tie the game at one, and Maxim Afinogenov won it in overtime) Ryan Miller was legitimately upset in the postgame interviews, saying he "let the team down" by letting in the late goal by Martin Straka. Just to review, it was the only goal he let in all game and it was a wicked wrist shot screened by his defenceman Brian Campbell.

Miller has arrived as a fearsome playoff goaltender who cannot be judged on statistics alone - his penchant for foiling breakaways may be unparalleled in the NHL and despite the eventual emergence of the Buffalo offence he was the primary reason the Sabres advanced past the New York Rangers in round two.

Why Buffalo should be afraid:

There is some sense that the Buffalo Sabres have peaked and are cracking a bit under either the intense physical play of the postseason or some phantom weight of being the favourites. I'm not sure how much stock to put in rather ethereal characteristics but there are a number of concrete concerns for the Sabres. If there has been any knock on Buffalo this year, and Ottawa themselves made reference to it earlier in the season, it is that they can be intimidated and forced off the puck. Ottawa is not afraid to play on the edge and should be expected to do so in this series, even at the risk of playing shorthanded (which against Buffalo might not be much of a risk - read on). If Buffalo is forced into playing more conservatively - shying away from contact rather than initiating it - they have a tendency to not play their fast transition game and also become pinned in their own zone, where their offensive attack usually starts. As good as the Sabres defence is in terms of moving the puck through three zones to their forwards and defending on the rush, they have shown weaknesses when faced with a strong forecheck and cycling system, often to the point of either bad giveaways or falling into penalty trouble.

It seems almost inexplicable that a team as powerful as Buffalo's could be so bad on the powerplay. Yet they've gone well past the point of "small sample size" to the realization that they have a flawed approach on the man-advantage. Rather than using their speed and skill, they have become predictable in their approach to set up the point men for shots which has resulted in cashing in on just over 15% of their opportunities in the postseason. With a skilled and aggressive Ottawa defence, the Buffalo coaching staff simply must redefine their approach on the power play or they will lose this series.

Why Ottawa should win the series:

Although Anaheim has made relatively short work of their opponents thus-far this playoff season, Ottawa can make a strong case for being the premier team through the first two rounds. They dispatched the Penguins and Devils with ease, growing stronger as the games went on. They're leading all teams with 3.3 goals per game in the postseason. Most encouraging to Ottawa fans, their best players are finally playing like it: Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Dany Heatley (who has become somewhat of a Sabre-killer, echoes of Michel Goulet from a past generation) have gelled and are playing as well as they have all season, terrorizing opposing defences. Heatley in particular scored eight goals in as many games against the Sabres this season and the Sabres must find a way to prevent him from getting comfortable in the Buffalo zone.

After losing Zdeno Chara to Boston in the off-season, it was expected by many that the Ottawa defence would take a hit, but after initial growing pains their defensive unit has become – if not well-known – one of the best in the NHL. In particular they’ve been doing an excellent job clogging offensive lanes and blocking opposing shots. Anton Volchenkov led the league in blocked shots during the regular season and is at it again in the playoffs with 39 thus far, with teammate Chris Phillips not far behind with 34. With the Senators' defence stepping up while on the penalty kill, don't be surprised to see a number of quality shorthanded chances for Ottawa.

Ottawa's power play has been deadly at a 22.7% rate in the playoffs thus far. Combine that with the Sabres' difficulties in shutting down the Rangers' talented power play unit and that could spell doom for Buffalo, who is at less than 80% on the penalty kill through two rounds.

Why Ottawa should be afraid:

For all the talk about how well the top line is playing, they still have demonstrated a lack of consistent scoring threats from their other lines. Unless their secondary scorers like Antoine Vermette, Mike Comrie, and Mike Fisher can at the very least put sustained pressure on the Buffalo defence, let alone score, the Senators could find themselves behind in this series quickly. They will also need to better the Sabres at even-strength play, a difficult task.

Goaltender Ray Emery has proven many doubters wrong this season, taking the number one job and establishing himself as a quality netminder. However, he has yet to face consistent pressure all year as he is about to against Buffalo - he must come to grips with the fact that he let in some less-than-stellar goals in last year's loss to Buffalo. He's a far better - and more confident - goalie now but how will he react to giving up a bad goal this season? (…and on everyone’s minds: will Ryan Miller be a willing fight partner should the teams choose to go that route?)

While distant playoff history is not a quality guide to determine the outcome of this or any series, it must nevertheless be said that the Ottawa franchise will feel pressure at least until they make it to the finals. It becomes imperative for Ottawa to take at least one of the first two games in Buffalo lest they start questioning themselves en route to another failed postseason.

Random useless but fun playoff facts:

The Sabres have won each of the three playoff meetings between the two clubs, each being a memorable series in its own right. In 1997 the teams went to overtime of game seven before Derek Plante ripped a slapshot off of Ron Tugnutt's glove to win the series. 1999 saw the first-place Senators get swept and the shine first began to fade from Alexei Yashin (zero points after finishing the season tied for second in goals with 44). Last season's tight five-game series featured four one-goal games and ended on Jason Pominville's shorthanded tally in overtime. Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff has established himself as one of the better playoff coaches in recent memory, taking the Sabres to four trips to the conference finals in his nine years at the helm – add one Stanley Cup victory to that resume and he will rightfully take his place among the better coaches of all-time.

My pick:

One understated key for Buffalo might be how well top defenseman Henrik Tallinder handles Ottawa's top line. Especially at home, Buffalo can match Tallinder (with partner Toni Lydman) with the deadly Ottawa line, and add pressure with playoff revelation Dainius Zubrus who overall has easily been Buffalo's best forward in the postseason, not shying away from quality dirty work along the boards in all zones.

Buffalo needs to avoid the penalty box (perhaps on both ends, due to their weak power play) as their five-on-five play in the playoffs is as impressive as it was in the regular season, outscoring their opponents at nearly a two-to-one margin through 11 games.

As for who will eventually win this best-of-seven – nobody can predict. The epitome of a toss-up series, the end result may very well turn on a random bounce of the puck or unforeseen circumstance that forces otherwise inexperienced players into action. As touched upon above, Ottawa will win this series if they can establish a constant pressure in the Buffalo zone, leaving Buffalo scrambling to create offense and ending up in the penalty box, where the Senators will pick apart Buffalo. Buffalo will win this series if they quickly and effectively neutralize the Senators' top line and can keep them frustrated - Ottawa won't quite have the quality depth to keep up with all four Buffalo lines if the Sabres can consistently roll them (read: quickly move the puck out of the Buffalo zone and stay out of penalty trouble).

I’ve gone back and forth between thinking each team was going to win this series - no result (other than it only going four or five games) could be seen as unexpected; I would think that if Ottawa can take three of the first five, they will clinch it at home in game six. However in the end, I can’t go with anything other than this series going seven games and if that happens, I give it to the home team.
Buffalo in seven.

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