Banged-up Sabres getting much-needed rest

Updated: May 16, 2006, 9:32 AM ET
Associated Press

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Before coach Lindy Ruff gave his Buffalo Sabres a rare two-day break in the midst of the playoffs, he left them with one simple message.

"I told them it was well deserved," Ruff said Monday.

It's a much-needed one, too, for a Sabres team that's a little banged up and can use all the rest it can get in preparing to face the second-seeded Hurricanes in a best-of-seven Eastern Conference final series that opens Saturday at Carolina.

The fourth-seeded Sabres, who resume practice on Tuesday, are missing two key regulars -- center Tim Connolly (possible concussion) and defenseman Dmitri Kalinin (ankle), both not expected to be ready for the start of the series.

Buffalo also has several players that can use a break, particularly defenseman Jay McKee, credited with blocking 34 shots in 11 playoff games. Defensive partners Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder can also rest after averaging a team-high 21-plus minutes a game.

Then there's Ryan Miller, whose 302 saves and 2.25 goals-against average rank second among goaltenders with 10 or appearances this postseason.

"We asked a lot of things from them," Ruff said of his team's effort so far. "Two days off is good."

The Sabres are coming off an emotionally draining series against Ottawa, in which they eliminated the top-seeded Senators in five games -- three wins coming in overtime, including the series-clinching 3-2 victory on Saturday.

The Hurricanes advanced after knocking off New Jersey with a 4-1 win in Game 5 on Sunday.

It's the first time the two franchises will be meeting in the playoffs.

Carolina won the regular-season series 3-1, including a shootout victory. But the Sabres did win the last meeting, 4-0 at Carolina on the final day of the regular season, preventing the Hurricanes from clinching first place in the East.

Unlike the Senators, who proved to be more flash than grit, the Hurricanes are expected to present the Sabres a tougher challenge in a matchup featuring two teams with similar opportunistic offensive styles and sound defensive systems.

Buffalo and Carolina are both 8-3 this postseason and both won 52 games in the regular season. The Sabres, with 43 playoff goals, might have the edge on the Hurricanes, who scored 32, but both teams have allowed only 27.

Both goalies, Miller (8-3) and Carolina's Cam Ward (8-2), are rookies, and are getting help from the players in front of them. Carolina has been credited with 202 blocked shots and the Sabres have 195. Only Edmonton, with 215 also in 11 games, has registered more this postseason.

Oh, and here's another similarity, the Sabres and Hurricanes were both discounted for being too inexperienced and lacking big-name talent to be considered Stanley Cup contenders when the season began in October.

Not any longer.

"I don't think there's any sneaking up on anybody now," Ruff said. "They beat a very good hockey club. I think a lot of people didn't anticipate Carolina getting by Jersey. But they got the job done."

Few expected the Sabres, making their first postseason appearance since 2001, to get this far. But Buffalo, which eliminated Philadelphia in six games in the first round, is continuing to prove to be for real.

Hurricanes captain Rod Brind'Amour paid due respect to Buffalo shortly after celebrating the win over New Jersey.

"That's the team to beat," Brind'Amour told the Raleigh News and Observer. "We predicted them to win, and it's going to be a heck of a matchup."

"That's nice of Rod," Ruff said, when informed of Brind'Amour's comments. "But I think they're a pretty confident squad on the inside, too."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press