Conference finals breakdown: Sabres vs. Senators
At the start of the playoffs, this looked like an absolutely perfect matchup for the right to go to the Stanley Cup finals. And now that it's here, there's nothing to suggest this won't be anything but a terrific showdown between the two best teams in the conference.
Although this tilt is a rematch of last season's second-round encounter (won by the Sabres in five games), the roles are now distinctly different. This time around, it's Buffalo which enters as the conference's top regular-season team. Early on in the playoffs, the Sabres acknowledged the role of the favorite took some getting used to.
The Senators, on the other hand, have relished their team-under-the-radar position. It took Sabres coach Lindy Ruff about two seconds after dispatching the New York Rangers in six games to insist the Senators had played better this spring and were the favorites. He's got something there. The Senators have had few missteps during their 8-2 run through the first two rounds against Pittsburgh and New Jersey.
On the ice, these two teams have few exploitable weaknesses and a multitude of strengths, whether it's their respective offensive depth, good (at times terrific) goaltending, solid defense and burning belief this is their year to win it all.
These two teams met eight times this season, including a couple of games in which there was a significant amount of bad blood thanks to Chris Neil's blind-side hit on Buffalo co-captain Chris Drury. So, there won't be much of a feeling-out process here.
"I think the series may be unpredictable at times," Ruff said. "I think this series can go a number of directions."
"I was feeling pretty good today until you mentioned that [the 23 points]," Ruff quipped.
If the Devils' lack of defensive depth was exposed by Ottawa's big line, the challenge of containing the Senators' trio will likely fall to the Sabres' best and under-appreciated defensive pair of Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder.
2. Quid pro quo. If the Sabres put Tallinder and Lydman against Ottawa's top guns, you can bet Ottawa coach Bryan Murray will be looking to get his big defensive duo, Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips, on the ice as often as possible against whichever Sabres line is generating the most offense. Look for Volchenkov and Phillips to be trusted to shut down Drury, Dainius Zubrus and Jochen Hecht, who provided a terrific offensive spark in the Sabres' deciding 5-4 victory against the Rangers. The Senators' defensive pairing has been absolutely dominant this spring, keeping the Devils' main offensive unit (Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta) at bay in the second round and negating Sidney Crosby in the first round.
3. Addition by subtraction. At the start of the season, the Senators looked to be a lesser team because they were without 6-foot-9 behemoth Zdeno Chara, who signed with Boston as a free agent. But GM John Muckler deftly swapped out Martin Havlat and Bryan Smolinski in a three-way deal with San Jose and Chicago and ended up with defensemen Tom Preissing and Joe Corvo. Murray said the play of those two defensemen in the second half are a big reason the Senators have developed the kind of strong defensive personality they have lacked in the past. The Preissing/Corvo offensive contributions (they have 11 points in the postseason) also give the Senators three outstanding defensive pairings (Wade Redden and Andrej Meszaros round out the six) that are the envy of the rest of the playoff crowd. This defensive depth gives the Senators a major advantage over the Sabres -- at least on paper.
4. No one-trick Sabres. Before the playoffs began, the theory was if teams could slow the up-tempo Sabres and get them off the groove that saw them score more goals (308) than any other team during the regular season, then the Presidents' Trophy winners could be had. Well, the Rangers played almost a perfect series against the Sabres and two things happened. First, the Sabres showed they could play a kind of shut-down game, too, as they played five straight one-goal games against the Rangers and won three of them. It might not be the way the Sabres want to play, but Ruff said knowing they can play it any way the game dictates should boost their confidence against a Senators team that has also shown tremendous adaptability this spring.
5. No M.A.S.H. unit ... yet. A season ago, the Buffalo Sabres started to resemble the black knight from Monty Python's famous "Holy Grail" spoof, except all of the Sabres limbs started to drop off along the blue line. By the time Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals rolled around against Carolina, they were down four starters. This spring, both teams hit the conference finals in almost perfect health. The Senators are still without fourth-line forward Patrick Eaves after he was crushed by a Colby Armstrong hit in the first round, but with all due respect to Eaves, it is a minor loss. Injuries are part of the game at this stage of the season (just ask Mathieu Schneider of the Detroit Red Wings, who broke his wrist against San Jose and is gone for the season), so the team that continues to enjoy good health will have a distinct advantage. Last season, there were plenty of questions about how the Sabres might have fared against Carolina if they stayed healthy. With two terrific teams, it'd be nice not to have to weigh injuries into the final analysis.
• Sabres: Daniel Briere has only been held scoreless twice in 11 playoff games and leads the Sabres with 11 points and is a plus-6. His 16 penalty minutes are problematic, but Briere has a knack for making the big play at the most important moments. Defenseman Jaroslav Spacek was a horse for the Edmonton Oilers last season. This spring, he has yet to register a point for the Sabres and has played fewer than 13 minutes a night in the past three games.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
2007 NHL PLAYOFFS
We're down to the final four teams and both top seeds are still alive. What happens next in the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs? Scott Burnside previews the conference finals:
• No. 1 Buffalo vs. No. 4 Ottawa
• No. 1 Detroit vs. No. 2 Anaheim
• Complete coverage