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Six moments that defined the Sabres season

Now that the season is over I wanted to take a look back at several of the things that made this season memorable for the Buffalo Sabres. Six moments that defined the Sabres season:

6.  Derek Roy’s injury:

In December the Sabres were reeling with the league’s worst record.  Then on December 23rd their leading scorer went down with an injury that all but ended his season.  Fans wrote the team and season off as an opportunity to try and evaluate some of their young players while deciding which veterans to trade. However, after January 1st the team turned everything around with a 28-11-6 record that propelled them from the league’s worst record to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.  There is no way to quantify the loss of Derek Roy, but the only thing you can think of is that Lindy Ruff used this as his motivation to push certain veterans, but also push young players. 

Roy’s injury also came back to bite the team in the playoffs.  As injuries mounted Roy was getting ready to return to the lineup.  Had the Sabres advanced giving Roy several more days of practice he may have returns closer to full speed.  However, injuries to Tim Connolly and Jason Pominville in the Philadelphia Flyers series drove Roy back into the lineup.  He played as well as can be imagined after five months off, however a completely healthy Derek Roy would have helped the team in the game.

5. Development of Darcy’s young players:

Nathan Gerbe, Tyler Ennis, Tyler Myers and Chris Butler all became valuable contributors to this organization throughout the course of the season, most specifically during the team’s second half surge.  The addition of Marc-Andre Gragnani to the postseason lineup provided further evidence that the organization has positioned itself with some aging veterans (Vanek, Pominville, Roy) and with the addition a star top line center and top pairing defensemen the Sabres’ future looks bright. 

Myers shrugged off a tough first half of the season that may be attributed to losing his partner (Henrik Tallinder) and adjusting to his new pairing.  Myer’s play in the second half of the season and postseason showed promise of what Myer can become.  The Sabres appear to have the makings of a Chris Pronger, Zdeno Chara type player who is big, physical and can log 25+ minutes a night. Ennis finished fourth on the team with 49 points, including 20 goals while playing in all 82 games.  Ennis’ skating ability and creativity have Sabres fans excited to watch his continued development.  Gerbe skated in 64 games while registering 31 points during the regular season, but his play in the second half of the season into the playoffs is what has won him over with fans.  Despite his 5’5” frame Gerbe skated hard every minute he was on the ice and made the most of all his ice time.  His spin-o-rama goal in the win against Philadelphia at the end of the year was arguably the goal of the year.  Both Gragnani and Butler provide the Sabres with the opportunity to field a very good second and/or third pairing on the blue line as they continue to mature. Butler struggled slightly against Philadelphia in the playoffs while Gragnani shined.  However, I would expect that as both of these players learn from this season they will continue their growth and development.

4. Jhonas Enroth’s play while Ryan Miller was injured:

Ryan Miller going down in the midst of a playoff chase was every fan’s worst nightmare.  However, the play through the 2010-11 season of Jhonas Enroth provided comfort in knowing that the team can survive without Ryan Miller.  Enroth posted a 9-2-2 record with 2.73 GAA for the season including a stretch when Miller went down that included a shutout win against the Rangers and a 4-0-1 record that helped sustain the playoff rush.

People will read into the goalie situation however they want, but what fans should appreciate is that heading into the 2011-12 season the Sabres have a legitimate backup goaltender who Lindy Ruff has confidence in to play.  This should allow Ryan Miller to get a rest every 5-7 games or however Lindy sees fit.  Miller played in 23 consecutive games at one point this season and minimizing those long stretches should be beneficial to both Miller and the Sabres going forward.

3. Thomas Vanek’s emergence as a leader in the second half:

Forgetting that Thomas Vanek led the team in points (73) and goals (32) this season, the storyline for Thomas Vanek was his ascension to being a leader.  Vanek won the right to wear an ‘A’ on his sweater this year and Vanek would be the likely candidate to wear the ‘C’ in 2011-12 after this season.  There are other potential players that may be able to wear the ‘C’, most notably probably Jason Pominville who is on the ice in all key situations, but this appears to becoming Thomas Vanek’s team.  Lindy Ruff has been particularly hard on Vanek for the past several seasons and demanded more from him which Vanek delivered upon this year.  Vanek improved his two-way play and is still their most effective offensive player.  If the Sabres can find a way to bring in a #1 center to play along Vanek the team would markedly improve.  Who doesn’t want to see a Vanek-Richards/Spezza-Stafford line?

2. The playoff run

A season once thought for dead made a turn around after the New Year to make a run that left the team in the seventh position in the Eastern Conference playoffs.  The team gelled together and a variety of different players carried the team at time from Ryan Miller’s March, Jhonas Enroth’s relief appearance, Drew Stafford’s hot streak and Thomas Vanek’s resurgence.  The 28-11-6 record was the league’s second best record behind Vancouver.  Even as the trade deadline approached the direction the team would take was unsure.  The addition of Brad Boyes at the deadline provided a short term spark that the team carried through until the playoff clinching win against the Flyers.

1. Terry Pegula buys the Buffalo Sabres:

February 22, 2011.  Terry Pegula reignited passion for the Buffalo Sabres.  The team had improved their play and was on the cusp of being a playoff contender, however fans remained cautiously optimistic as to how the team should approach the trade deadline.  Pegula’s purchase of the Sabres is a fan.  He is a passionate fan of the team and isn’t running the team like a business.  He is running it more like a fantasy hockey team assembled to win.  “Winning is not a goal, it is a belief” were the word uttered by Terry Pegula that have been embraced by fans.  “The purpose of the Buffalo Sabres is to win the Stanley Cup”.  Pegula’s passion for the Sabres is well documented and it is that passion that will help fuel his desire to bring a championship to the city of Buffalo. 

Stephen Ross (Miami Dolphins), Paul Allen (Seattle Seahawks) and Mickey Arison (Miami Heat) are the only owners according to Forbes that are wealthier than Terry Pegula.  Pegula is almost twice as wealthy as the next hockey owner (Detroit’s Mike Ilitch).  My point is not to dwell on Pegula’s wealth, but more to reiterate his point that Terry Pegula is not the owner of the Buffalo Sabres to make money.  Terry Pegula is the owner of the Buffalo Sabres because he wants to win the Stanley and he possesses the financial resources necessary to make Buffalo ‘Hockey Heaven’.  With Terry Pegula as owner it opens up a world of free agency that fans in Buffalo were never accustomed to and improvements to amenities that players never expected. 

The 2011-12 will most definitely be defined as the season that the Pegula family bought the Buffalo Sabres.  As much as it appears to be Terry’s team, behind the scenes he and those close to him will let you know that this is a family affair along with his wife and children which he wants to bring that family environment throughout the organization. 

When looking back at this season in five to ten years nothing else may be remembered other than Terry Pegula’s purchase, however the remainder of the emergence of Vanek as a leader and the play of the young players could be what helped build the foundation for this group to reach Pegula’s desire for a Stanley Cup in Buffalo.

Twitter: @brianbund

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All good things come to an end

Game seven between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Buffalo Sabres went against the grain as it relates to the rest of the series.  The Flyers took control of the contest from the start of the game all the way until their 5-2 victory. 

The Flyers will move onto the Eastern Conference Semi-finals and their opponent is yet to be determined.  For the Sabres they have to take pride in their second half surge and new direction under Terry Pegula and company.  The Flyers were the better team for most of the previous six games and that seemed to culminate in Game seven.  Regardless of the injuries the Sabres sustained throughout the series it was unfortunate to see their season end so abruptly and harshly. 

Some thoughts on how things developed throughout Game seven:

Derek Roy should be commended for the heart and determination it must have taken to get to the point where he could play in Game seven.  He was initially told he would be done for the season and then maybe the second round of the playoffs where that thought seemed impossible for this Sabres team.  Nonetheless, Roy put the work in necessary to get back when the Sabres needed him in Game seven.  You could tell he did not have game shape which after being out for four months and dealing with a leg injury it is difficult to work yourself back into shape that quickly.  Fans should not judge him solely in regards to his performance and if Tim Connolly would have been healthy it seems uncertain if Roy would have played.

The Flyers were the much better team in each game and Ryan Miller was the reason this series and Game seven stayed close.  The Flyers put relentless pressure on the Sabres in the first period outshooting the Sabres 16-2 and creating numerous scoring opportunities. A late goal by Braydon Coburn off the face-off was deflected by Mike Grier past Miller.  The Flyers registered 36 shots and many of their earlier shots generated quality scoring opportunities. Miller’s first period performance helped hold them off the board until the Flyers broke through on that late first period goal with 20 second remaining.

Even though the Sabres won the face-off battle 37-34, Paul Gaustad lost two face-offs that led directly to the Flyers first two goals. 

The Flyers forecheck and the Sabres inability to clear their defensive zone hurt them considerably in this game.  It was a constant advantage that the Flyers enjoyed throughout the series and in Game seven they really capitalized on pressuring Miller and the Sabres.

Danny Briere had a fantastic series against his former team that was capped with a 1 goal, 1 assist performance.  He has scored 94 points in 93 career playoff games.  His departure is well documented, but it is hard to swallow for Sabres fans that a point per game playoff performer left town.  This series put the Flyers depth on showcase, especially at the center position.  His and Claude Giroux’s play carried the Flyers through difficulties in goal.

Drew Stafford is going to be an interesting component to this offseason.  Coming off a 30-goal season the forward played extremely well at times in the series, but failed to generate much on the score sheet (1g, 2a).  Where his value is set on the market is going to determine whether or not he stays with the Sabres.

Chris Butler’s regression through the series really hurt the Sabres, especially with the injury problems that the team faced with Jordan Leopold and Andrej Sekera. Hopefully the young defenseman can learn from this postseason and continue his growth going forward.

This game was more a reflection of how well the Flyers played as opposed to how poorly the Sabres played,.  The Flyers generated more offense, played a more sound defensive game and for the first time in the series played better on special teams.  The Sabres seemed overmatched and even overwhelmed by the emotion of the Game seven.  Turnovers early in their own defensive zone and shooting pucks over the Flyers goalie really hurt any potential chance of building momentum early.

Three Stars:

  1. Danny Briere (1g, 1a and proverbial pest all night)
  2. Claude Giroux (2a)
  3. James van Riedsmyk (1g and solid all around play)

Regardless of the outcome, if many Buffalo Sabres fans were told back in December that they would have the opportunity to compete in a Game seven in the first round of the playoffs they would have been completely happy with the chance.  While that is little condolence for the season being over there are many positives that can and should be taken away from the season including the new direction under new ownership.  There are many questions that management will need to address come July 1 and beyond, but fans should anticipate an exciting offseason and 2011-12 hockey season. 

Over the next weeks and months, we will take a look back on the 2010-2011 season as well as a look ahead to this offseason.

Twitter: @brianbund

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Game 7 preview

 

Here we go!

Is there anything better in sports than a game 7?  Unlike other do or die situations in the NFL and college basketball there are six games played back and forth that build animosity between the players and allow a series of story lines to unfold.  The Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres series is no different and based on the fact that every game has been decided by one goal with the exception of a late empty net goal in game 3.  The last two games have been decided in overtime.  Looking ahead, game 7 should provide an electric atmosphere in the Wells Fargo Center and for some excellent television.  Some story lines to watch for in game 7:

First and foremost, with Tim Connolly’s absence there is going to be some pressure for Derek Roy to actually produce for the Sabres.  Sabres fans would have much rather seen Roy’s addition to the lineup serve as additional depth has now turned to needing 15-20 minutes of ice time with the possibility of playing on both special teams units.

In addition to Derek Roy’s return, both Andrej Sekera and Jochen Hecht practiced with the team.  There is no way to know until probably game time who, if any out of the three return to the lineup but being able to insert any and all of these players into the lineup would be a boost for the Sabres.

Will the Flyers’ goalie situation stabilize?  Brian Boucher has been announced he will start in net and in all likelihood Sergei Bobrovsky I assume would be the backup.  The Flyers have resorted to pulling their goalie in three games this series; however they have managed a 2-1 record in those games they do so.  The Sabres need to continue to attack the Flyers’ goalies and sustain pressure for the entire 60 minutes.

Can Ryan Miller steal another game?  Two of the three wins for the Sabres have been because of Ryan Miller playing brilliant hockey resulting in two shutouts.  Miller has played well in the entire series and the Flyers put relentless pressure on him to come back in game 6.  How Miller responds and how well he plays is going to be crucial for the Sabres to advance.

Can the Sabres stop Danny Briere and Claude Giroux?  Together they have combined for 12 points in the series.  Briere’s five goals have all seemed to fall in clutch situations where the Flyers genuinely needed the lift including game 6.  Giroux has had 1 goal and 6 assists and generally had his way with controlling the puck into and through the Buffalo zone.  How well the young Sabres blue line handles these two players may go a long way to winning a road game 7.

Can someone else step up and help Thomas Vanek carry this team offensively?  Vanek has two multi-goal games in this series.  It is the first time a Sabres player has done that since Chris Drury.  Only two other Sabres have two goals, Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe.  If this team is going to compete offensively with Philadelphia they are going to need to have a more balanced attack.  Drew Stafford has played a remarkable series and at times been the Sabres most dominant player, however he only has one goal and game 7 would be a huge moment for Stafford to make his presence felt on the score sheet.

The Sabres blue line is a combined -8 for the series and as a whole the Sabres have not played well against the Flyers at even strength.  It sounds cliché to say that they need a total group effort in game 7 but this unit really does.  At times each defenseman has played extremely well in the series only to have another unit struggle and take untimely penalties.  Their ability to withstand the Flyers forecheck and reclaim the area surrounding Ryan Miller is going to be a crucial aspect of game 7.

The Sabres are 1-5 in Game 7s all-time and the Flyers are 8-6.  The road team has won 8 out of the last 10 game 7s.

Who wants to be a hero?  Game 7 provides the element of either extending or ending your season in one game.  Players have the opportunity to lift their name within franchise player history in moments like these.  Players like Danny Briere and Thomas Vanek are the likely players to continue their hot hand, however in situations like these it can come from the most unlikely of sources.  Barring a complete letdown this game has itself positioned to be a fantastic ride for hockey fans and a gut wrenching experience for fans of both teams.  As Marv Levy used to say, “Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?”

Twitter: @brianbund

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He’s just a little guy…

One win to advance, Thirteen to go

The Buffalo Sabres have a chance to return home and close out the series against the Philadelphia Flyers after their 4-3 overtime victory.  The Sabres jumped out with a couple weird angle goals, but put pressure on the Flyers from the start.  The Flyers responded in their home arena and pushed the Sabres back on their heels, but ultimately lost the game in overtime.

Tyler Ennis was the Sabres best forward all night and as much as I feel he may overcomplicate his moves while entering the offensive zone he was the only player that consistently put pressure on the Flyers.  Not to mention scoring the game winner allows him a free pass.  He needs to play more games like tonight and drive hard to the net and play smart along the boards.

I was skeptical of Ennis at times and I’ll gladly eat this delicious plate of crow. 

I had a sneaky suspicion that Tim Connolly was going to do something big in the game.  I was wrong.  Go figure. 

The shot by Mike Weber was as big a part of Ennis’ goal.  It was a hard, low slap shot that created the rebound opportunity.  Rebounds have been available to the Sabres throughout the series and they capitalized on the opportunity. 

Brian Boucher had a rough night and there is no excuse to have the two pucks bounce off of you from that deep.  On top of that he seemed completely shocked that Marc-Andre Gragnani would want to shoot the puck on a 4-on-3.

I really wish that the referees would just drop the puck.  I understand and can appreciate that there is a protocol that they are supposed to follow, but at time it is tough to watch and the defensive zone faceoff is so crucial in some instances in the playoffs

Ryan Miller may have been out of position in some cases tonight, but he also made huge saves through the third period.  He was put in a difficult position in the James van Riemsdyk goal and was forced to leave the net.  With the Flyers controlling most of the second and third periods the Sabres needed Miller to play well and he helped carry the team through.

This game was played a lot more cleanly than I had anticipated after the end of Game four.

I really hope that Jason Pominville is ok because the replay certainly looked like the skate caught his ankle area pretty well. 

For five games the Flyers have forechecked as well as any team I can remember and it once again led to a goal.  The game tying goal left Chris Butler off his feet and Mike Richards dumped the puck out front for Danny Briere to quickly put it in.

Game six on Easter Sunday should provide a unique atmosphere in the building and plaza.  The Sabres have the opportunity to close the series out at home and there are rumors that Derek Roy could return and if Pominville is going to be out for a prolonged period of time it could be the type of boost that the Sabres need.  The Sabres are going to need to be able to handle Philadelphia’s desperation and keep the crowd revving throughout the game.

Three Stars:

  1. Tyler Ennis (2 goals)
  2. Claude Giroux (2 assists)
  3. Ryan Miller (36 saves and some big third period saves)

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We’re all tied up

The series between the Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo
Sabres has become a best of three heading back to Philadelphia.  The 1-0 victory on Wednesday night once again
was evidence of how closely matched these teams are.  The sellout HSBC Arena crowd was treated to a
spectacular performance given by Ryan Miller, who posted his second shutout of
the series.  The roller coaster that is
the NHL playoffs seems poised for at least a couple more turns.  Let’s take a look at the game.

Ryan Miller may not have had to be great in his Game 1
shutout, but he earned every accolade and piece of praise given to him after
his game 4 performance.  Despite a
relatively shaky opening period he kept Philadelphia off the score board and
elevated his game from there.  Miller
played with an edge to his game all night that included a jab to the face of
the Flyers Daniel Carcillo.  This is the
Ryan Miller that fans have asked to see on a regular basis.  Someone that is capable of bailing the team
out for their mistakes as he did on the third period stop of Danny Briere.  Briere received the puck in front of the net
all alone and despite his patient moves Miller stonewalled him with his glove
hand in a moment that should live on in Sabres playoff history.  The crowd erupted in its appreciation of the
play and Miller continued to carry the team to the victory.

What might be lost in the Miller-Briere save is how much of
a defensive lapse there was that allowed Briere to be that open.  The Flyers capitalized on a turnover by
Buffalo and as Miller pointed out in his post-game comments that Danny likes to
cheat a little bit and received an excellent opportunity to tie the game.  The play felt similar to the turnover in Game
3 that left Steve Montador to play a 2-on-1 against the Flyers.

The Flyers forecheck still seems to give the Sabres a lot of
trouble especially when you look at the last five minutes of the opening period
and almost the entire third period.  The
Sabres ended the game with 9 total giveaways.
The defensemen have to be stronger with the puck heading out of their
own zone to avoid setting the Flyers up for the easy opportunities they have
enjoyed this series.   The Flyers played
an excellent game and sustained a lot of pressure.  If not for Miller’s performance they would be
heading back to Philadelphia up 3-1.

It is tough to argue that Lindy Ruff wasn’t at least trying
to do something different against the Flyers.
He juggled the Sabres lines to an almost unrecognizable
combination.  However, what Ruff said after
the game made a lot of sense.  His intent
was to take his top scorers, notably Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford were paired
with players Lindy felt were working hard like Nathan Gerbe, Paul Gaustad and Patrick
Kaleta.  Opening lines were:

Gerbe-Connolly-Stafford

Vanek-Gaustad-Kaleta

Ennis-Niedermayer-Pominville

McCormick-Boyes-Grier

Lost in Ryan Miller’s performance is how well Brian Boucher
played for the Flyers stopping 28 out of 29 shots including one on Tyler Ennis
that allowed Philadelphia to stay in the game. The one goal that Boucher did
give up was an excellent play by Ennis to get the puck out front to Rob
Niedermayer who then passed it to a wide open Jason Pominville.  If he is able to continue to play like he did
in games 3 & 4 Flyers fans should feel much more comfortable with their
chances.

Tyler Myers is starting to play with an edge that you
wouldn’t expect a young player to display.
He had a tendency in game 4 to walk a fine line while at times cross it,
but when Myers plays with this type of mean streak you can see the potential he
has to reach the likes of Zdeno Chara, Scott Stevens, and Chris Pronger.  His continued development is going to prove
to be a catalyst for this team moving well beyond this year.

Tim Connolly did not have a very good game for the Sabres
and at times hurt both special teams units.
On the penalty kill he intercepted a pass on a nice defensive play only
to not get the puck out of the zone and create a scoring opportunity for
Philadelphia.  Until the potential return
of Derek Roy, the Sabres are going to need more out of Tim Connolly although he
did lead all forwards in ice time with 19:57.

Chris Butler led all players with 27:45 of ice time.  His development along with Myers should
provide Buffalo with a formidable blue line pairing.

The Sabres power play is now 3 for 19 in the season and
included a prolonged 5 minute power play that remained stagnant
throughout.  The Sabres got the 5 minute
power play on an elbow delivered by Mike Richards near the end of the second
period on Kaleta.  The NHL will surely
take a closer look at the hit and it could affect game 5.

At this point there appears to be a growing disdain from
each team as evidenced by the end of the game scrums.  Kimmo Timmonen’s ‘tap’ on Nathan Gerbe as well
as the numerous other shots back and forth in this series seem to be escalating
as the series heads back to Philadelphia.
The Sabres are in a position to take game 5 and head back home to close
the series out Easter Sunday in front of what should be a raucous home
crowd.  If the Sabres are going to take
game 5 they will need another good performance from Ryan Miller as well as some
offensive production.  At this point in
the series, it seems hard to believe that any team is going to run away with a
game so the Sabres are going to need to execute their game plan and take
advantage of the situations as they present themselves.  At the very least this Friday should be an
exciting game.

Twitter: @brianbund

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Flyers vs. Sabres primer

Sabres vs. Flyers Breakdown

Goalie:  Miller vs. Bobrovsky.  For the sake of this comparison we will leave Enroth and Boucher out of the conversation although it’s not crazy to think that either may see some time in net at some point.  Looking at the season stats comparing the two it would appear to be pretty close:

  Miller Bobrovsky
Goals Against Avg 2.59 2.59
Save % 91.6% 91.5%
Shutouts 5 0
Wins 34 28
Games played 66 54

 

All things consider when looking at these stats I think you need to take into consideration how these two have played down the stretch.  Miller had a fantastic March and finally seemed to help re-elevate his game back to 2010 form.  Meanwhile Bobrovsky and the entire Flyers’ goalie situation will be under a microscope for the first couple of games.  While the pressure is not square on the rookie’s shoulders, Buffalo would be wise to try and attack early and often to potentially rattle his confidence.  Nonetheless, even with the above mentioned stats you have to give Miller the advantage. Miller has played in 40 career playoff games compared to Bobrovsky’s zero.  In those 40 games Miller has a career 2.39 GAA and 91.7% save percentage and a 22-18 record.  I’ll take his experience and hope the late season Ryan Miller shows up.

Advantage: Sabres

Defense: If Pronger comes back healthy that negates any hope the Sabres may have hoped in having the best defensemen on the ice.  Pronger’s health and effectiveness need to be near 100% in order to get the most out of the Flyers defense.

Buffalo Sabres Philadelphia Flyers
Tyler Myers Chris Pronger
Andrej Sekera Kimmo Timonen
Steve Montador Matt Carle
Chris Butler Andrej Meszaros
Mike Weber Braydon Coburn
Andre-Gragnari/Morrisonn/Leopold Sean O’Donnell

 

The Flyers defense has outscored the Sabres 168-153 (using the top six scoring defense) and are a combined +101 compared to the Sabres +37.  This is the area of the Sabres game that they need to remain sound in game in and game out and not turn the puck over in their own zone and match Philly’s toughness.  If Sekera can come back to be healthy where the top 4 defense can be Myers, Sekera, Butler and (hopefully solid playing) Montador the Sabres can compete.  Myers needs to be a force in every game and will be looked to play a Pronger-esque series.  Needless to say this group has their work cut out for them.

Advantage: Flyers although not nearly as big if Pronger isn’t healthy

Forwards: I break this down looking mostly at quantity vs. quality.  I think many experts around the country will speak to the quality of talent that the Flyers possess and for those of us that have watched this Sabres team play all year know at least to some extent they will rely on at least 3 lines to give them production.  Each team has two 30 goal scorers (Briere and Carter vs. Stafford and Vanek).  Neither team has a player with more than 80 points, but both have 10 players with 30 or more points. The Flyers have four players with 60 or more points, including Briere.  There has to be some belief that Briere is going to enjoy going against the Sabres and there’s reason to believe from our past that he’ll deliver.

Much like on defense where Myers needs to match or exceed Pronger, I believe that Vanek needs to be near the best player on the ice nightly.  If he can continue with his play as he did down the stretch that will be the difference that the Sabres will need.  I personally like how this group of forwards are playing right now for the Sabres although in order for them to have an advantage at these positions in this series they are going to need to get continue production from Gerbe, Ennis and most specifically, number 19 Mr. Connolly.

In all, I think that the Flyers will maintain a slight advantage heading into the series, but production from the Sabres third and fourth lines can help take control of this series.

Advantage: Flyers, Slightly

Special Teams:  The Sabres have the 9th (19.4%) ranked power play compared to the Flyers 19th (16.6%) favors the Sabres significantly, but the greatest concern for fans should be that the Sabres have given up 13 shorthanded goals this year while scoring just two.  Conversely, the Flyers have only allowed 5 shorthanded goals while scoring 13 (Richards and Giroux both have 3).  The Sabres still maintain a slight edge on the man-advantage, but it needs to be astutely away of the Flyers in these situations and Miller is going to need to be a huge part of nullifying these opportunities.

While with the man down the Sabres and Flyers are near equals (13th and 15th) at 83% and 82.7% respectively.  The Sabres have been extremely efficient in killing off their penalties down the stretch and that needs to continue.  I think this is where Tim Connolly will need to make his presence felt on both the PK and PP.  If he can be a difference maker at some point, the Sabres will have the advantage.  Meanwhile, the Flyers will want Giroux and Carter to do the lion’s share of the work scoring while letting Briere and Mike Richards creating.  The Sabres need to not have a repeat of their special teams performance from last year’s series with Boston.  I like the Sabres performance down the stretch, especially on the kill to give them a slight advantage.

Advantage: Sabres

Coaching: Laviolette vs. Ruff.  319 career wins vs. 526 career wins. 34-26 playoff record vs. 54-40 playoff record.  For the sake of brevity, this is a push and as much as it may begrudge me to say if forced to pick I may pick Laviolette on paper, but Ruff is the coach I want.  He’s won 1 Stanley Cup and rode a hot spring to take the Flyers back to the Finals last year. Ruff has 1 Finals lost and 3 other conference finalist appearances.  I still think Ruff is a terrific game to game manager and knows how to push his team, but unlike many where Buffalo would enjoy this as an advantage, this is just too close to call.

Advantage: Push

X-Factor:

Sabres: Tim Connolly is the guy that the Sabres going to need to help elevate them to a team capable of winning multiple playoff series.  He’s on the top line for the Sabres and on both first units of special teams.  The Sabres first line has to at least match their level of play going forward and he needs to be at the top of his game on special teams.  The Sabres need to maximize their PP unlike last year, but I think other players can help there and Connolly’s presence really needs to be on the PK to not let the Flyers PP unit get hot.  Connolly staying healthy and playing well will bode well for the Sabres.

Flyers: Chris Pronger can be everything a Sabres fan dreams of Tyler Myers developing into.  He’ll log 30 minutes in a game if needed and play on both special teams units.  If he can be healthy and produce valuable close to 20 minutes a game for the Flyers it’ll be a tremendous upgrade. 

What it all means: The Sabres are one of the hot upset picks.  Based on their play since the turn of the calendar and the Flyers late season slump it is easy to see why many people like them to win.  It becomes a whole new animal in NHL Playoff hockey and I think most importantly for the Sabres is that players like Gerbe, Ennis and Myers got a taste of it last season, and a taste for losing.  If the Sabres are going to win this series it is going to need its best players to be their best players.  Unsung heroes help you through stretches in the regular season, but in the playoffs it is your best players that need to carry you. That means Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek and Tyler Myers specifically are going to need to help carry the Sabres past the Flyers. It would be nice to see Stafford, Gerbe and Ennis continue their play, but the playoffs are a time where legends manifest themselves and it is the three aforementioned players that are going to drive the Sabres success this spring.  If Pronger’s health remains questionable I like the Sabres in this series because of the Flyers goaltending concerns and the way that the Sabres lines are rolling.  I also think Miller has heard the rumblings and will be at his best in the series.

This postseason feels like it has the potential to be the start of something special for the Sabres based on the youth this team has and the new ownership.  It should be a good one.

Prediction:  Sabres in six

Follow me on Twitter: @brianbund

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Sabres vs. Rangers Reaction

So the game last night was something I was hoping to see.  The Sabres needed the two points more than they needed to look good.  They’re heading onto the road for 8 of their next 9 and even though they have played well on the road, getting a win against a conference opponent that is slipping back to the middle of the pack was important.

 

Ryan Miller was fantastic. Absolutely fantastic and really have been ever since Lindy called him out minus a couple long shots getting past him.  But last night he got them a game that they didn’t deserve to be in for two periods.  Rob Ray said it that the Rangers played a great road game last night and were the better team.  The Sabres looked slow and careless at time and Lindy pointed it out in his post game conference that they’d make turnovers that prolonged their shift and then would have to dump the puck and have the Rangers roll right back into the zone. That’s why Ryan Miller was great tonight.  He was in position all night, he looked comfortable and seemed to like facing a lot of shots because he wasn’t in his ‘thinking mood’.  Even the goal he let in wasn’t a bad one, Roy was shoved in front of him to screen him off. 

 

I’m still not sure why they play that poorly at home and don’t really understand it.  This game was like the Toronto game from a couple weeks back where the Sabres were the better team that night, but a late 2nd period goal rallied the Leafs, luckily they were on the right side of this decision with Detroit coming up.  Detroit’s Detroit and it’s going to be difficult to go on the road after that game last night, but it would be nice to start this road haul off positively.  I’d like to see the special teams take advantage of their opportunities and get some production from those second and maybe third lines and see if they can sneak this one out. 

 

On a football note: I’m extremely excited to watch Ed Reed play today.  He’s fantastic!

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