- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Oh, this should be fun. Given their plethora of talent and relentless pursuit of offense, the Sabres are always a treat to watch. The Rangers have once again become the darlings of Manhattan, advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
They did so in shocking fashion, disposing of Southeast champion Atlanta in four games, while the Sabres wobbled only slightly in dispatching the eighth-seeded New York Islanders.
Both teams boast terrific coaching and unheralded depth (although the Sabres' lineup has a higher profile after two strong seasons). Example? Fourteen Rangers had at least a point in four games against Atlanta and 16 Sabres found the score sheet against the Islanders. Each team boasts one of the game's brightest young goaltending talents in the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist, who hasn't given up more than three goals in his past eight starts, and Buffalo's Ryan Miller.
1. Managing expectations. A season ago, the Sabres were a playoff dark horse, advancing to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals by knocking off Philadelphia and Ottawa. This season, they were the consensus pick to win the East (which they did) and they are many critics' pick to win the Cup.
Expected to run roughshod over the Islanders, the Sabres looked a little out of sorts at times. They nearly blew a 4-1 lead in Game 5; they would have had it not been for an amazing, last-second save by Miller. They're expected to win this series, while the Rangers have already exceeded expectations by making the playoffs and sweeping Atlanta. Said one Eastern Conference scout: "If the Rangers win Game 1, it might be enough to turn the tide in the entire series."
It'll be up to the Sabres to learn to play with expectations if they want to fulfill them. This series will be a test to that mind-set.
2. Where's the 'D'? Scouts will tell you neither team's defensive corps fills anyone with dread. That said, both teams have managed quite nicely with a defense-by-committee style of play. Neither team has a Chris Pronger or Nicklas Lidstrom-type stud that anchors the group. Instead, coaches Lindy Ruff in Buffalo and Tom Renney in New York spread ice time evenly among their blue-liners. Toni Lydman leads all Sabres in ice time, averaging just 22:13 a night; Michal Rozsival leads the Rangers at 24:25, well below what players like Lidstrom, Pronger and Scott Niedermayer are logging.
Both teams will try to impose their will through an aggressive forecheck. The defensive unit that can withstand that pressure and make the good, safe break-out pass will give their team a leg up in what should be a very close series. The Rangers have had good production from Fedor Tyutin (five points vs. Atlanta) and Rozsival (three) and will need to keep getting production from the back end to keep pace with the high-octane Sabres.
3. Where's the offense? It's no secret the Sabres are a dynamic squad -- they boasted seven 20-goal scorers during the regular season. The challenge for the Rangers is in closing off the neutral zone to prevent, as much as possible, the Sabres' ability to generate speed as they hit the offensive zone -- and doing it without drawing penalties.
The Rangers allowed only one power-play goal against Atlanta in 17 total short-handed situations, the lowest in the postseason thus far. But the Rangers will be in trouble in a hurry if they allow the Sabres' power play to work frequently. The Sabres' strength lies in the fact that Ruff will roll four lines consistently, and all four can generate offense. If they can continue that plan without getting into penalty trouble, they will be hard to beat.
4. The Sean Avery Factor, Part Deux. We asked this rhetorical question at the outset of the playoffs: Can Avery, who has been so important to the Rangers' renaissance in the last two months of the season, continue to tread the fine line between agitation and disintegration? Against the Thrashers, Avery antagonized top players like Ilya Kovalchuk and Keith Tkachuk, while scoring once and adding four assists. He leads the Rangers with 21 penalty minutes -- all but four of which came during an altercation with Kovalchuk in Game 3. If he can needle guys like Briere, Drury, Vanek and Maxim Afinogenov in a similar fashion, it will give the Rangers an edge. If he topples into the maniac phase he has been known to enter, and the Sabres end up with more power-play time as a result, it'll be a killer.
5. Rangers' star power. If the Sabres hold an obvious edge in offensive depth (they scored 66 more times than the Rangers during the regular season), it will be up to the Rangers' dynamic duo of Jaromir Jagr and Michael Nylander (15 points between them versus Atlanta) to keep up that pace and keep the pressure off the rest of the offensive unit.
• Grit vs. flair. The Sabres are not blessed with a tremendous size or grit, which the Rangers will try to exploit with hard-nosed play from the likes of Ryan Callahan, Jed Ortmeyer, Blair Betts and Avery. "I think they're playing a more North American style," one scout said this week. If they can disrupt the Sabres defensively, especially through the neutral zone, and maybe chip in the odd goal here and there, the Rangers will be on their way to an upset.
• Rangers: Fedor Tyutin, who missed 16 games late in the season with a sprained left MCL, had five helpers against Atlanta in the first round. Rangers defenseman Paul Mara, acquired from Boston at the deadline for Aaron Ward in the hopes he could help the Rangers' power play (and to remove Ward from a potentially divisive dressing room feud with Jagr), has one goal in 19 games.
• Sabres: Tenacious Buffalo forward Paul Gaustad, placed on injured reserve after severing a tendon in his left ankle on Feb. 16, has been skating but isn't close to returning to action, according to Ruff. Buffalo co-captain Drury had four goals in the first round, two of which were game-winners. He, along with co-captain Daniel Briere, is about to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Did we mention this should be a ton of fun? Should be a lot of offensive fireworks, hard hitting and great goaltending. But in the end, the Sabres' experience of a season ago, coupled with their deep offensive reservoir, will be enough, but just. Buffalo in seven.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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