Series Preview: Buffalo Sabres And Boston Bruins

These two sides have much more in common than just resting in the B section of the NHL teams page. They're stingy defensively, live or die by the performances of their goaltenders, own tightly-knit offenses which score as a committee and excel better on the penalty kill, not the powerplay. Every regular season game counts, as the Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins each fended off a worrying opponent last weekend for relief or confidence.

While Buffalo lost to New Jersey on Sunday, it was a night earlier when they interrupted Daniel Alfredsson's celebration of 1,000 NHL games played. Thomas Vanek took not one, but four steps (goals) towards stamping an exclamation point on the Ottawa Senators' year. With a 5-2 victory, Buffalo broke three spells: they'd lost nine in a row to Ottawa, had never beaten goaltender Pascal Leclaire and prevented Alfredsson, an established Sabre-killer, from causing further cheers.

Boston preferred to play in Washington without Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron. This game may have meant zilch in the standings, but Alexander Ovechkin loves his trophy case, adding to it when he can. And if it's valuable to Ovechkin, it's valuable to his teammates who will put pucks on his stick while the coach double-shifts him. It was a game that was all about fore-checking. The Bruins held Ovechkin to five shots and a minus-one rating in nearly 26 minutes of ice time en route to a shoot-out win.

When studying Boston, I find that they are a cheaper version of Buffalo because they score less, are slightly worse in special teams and own a goalie who, despite a phenomenal rookie season, can't brand himself as the best in the world. There's only one top-netminder, Ryan Miller.

Boston did allow seven fewer goals against but scored 29 less tallies for themselves. Two of the four games they upped Buffalo in are essentially write-offs. One, Jhonas Enroth started in and number two, they grabbed a shoot-out win in; disallowed in postseason hockey. All of this really means nothing entering the first round, but hey, we have to base our logic on something right?

Dave already put together an article on the numbers in the season series, so I'll provide a peek at the postseason experiences from each roster, their key performers, question marks and the likely scenarios of winning.

Buffalo Sabres

Player Playoff Games Played Points
Tim Connolly 24 20
Paul Gaustad 25 5
Mike Grier 88 25
Jochen Hecht 58 31
Toni Lydman 40 10
Adam Mair 29 6
Steve Montador 31 6
Jason Pominville 34 20
Craig Rivet 63 22
Derek Roy 34 22
Drew Stafford 10 4
Henrik Tallinder 30 10
Raffi Torres 26 13
Thomas Vanek 26 12
Goalie Playoff Games Played Wins
Patrick Lalime 41 21
Ryan Miller 34 20











Headliner: Ryan Miller

No club is prouder of its goaltending leading up to the postseason than Buffalo. If the third time is the charm, Ryan Miller will add to a silver medal earned at the Olympics and the likelihood of a Vezina and/or Hart Memorial Trophy. The Michigan native reached the Conference Finals twice, but mentally, he looks primed now more than ever in a third crack at the Stanley Cup.

Numbers don't justify his sheer unflappability; the source of occasional undeserved wins and breathtaking strings of saves. Tall and commanding, Miller's name on a team-sheet can spook forwards. Of the seven goaltenders who put themselves in front of over 2,000 shots this year, the 29-year-old had the premium save percentage and goals against average.

Maverick: Thomas Vanek

When Vanek is at his best, he can be unstoppable as shown by his five goals in two games after recuperating from an injury. In previous playoff tournaments, he was a secondary scorer behind Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. It's time for him to be the premier striker, a role perfectly fit for a player with his intangibles.

This powerhouse Austrian hit-man is a key individual in Lindy Ruff's game plan and must deliver in a series where the goals will be few and far between. Boasting a great touch, strength and being a threat from the perimeter, Vanek may finally extend his scoring exploits beyond the regular schedule.

Young Gun: Tyler Myers

Myers pull the strings on Buffalo's blue line and his reach drives forwards, who think they have space for a play, crazy. A fine reader of the game, his ability to clog up shooting lanes and protect Miller on the penalty-kill is second to none. Treating everything professionally from day one, he may be nervous on the first few shifts, but will gain confidence hastily if history is an indication.

At the age of 20, Myers has already proved he can be an influential man with his brand of skills and powerful skating. Henrik Tallinder will testify to that.

Wild Card: Tim Connolly

A demonstration or two clarify Connolly's dynamism with a hockey stick. The remaining component of the Michael Peca trade spent much of his first few years on the treatment table, but a full season of this flying center gave Buffalo an edge they were lacking previously. 

Missing the last nine games with a foot injury, Ruff is optimistic that Connolly will possibly play when the series hits off on Thursday. 'We don't buy stars, we make them,' is Darcy Regier's regular mantra and Connolly hopes to emerge as the next great jewel. 

What To Do, What To Do?

A flaw in Buffalo's game is there proneness to rewarding opponents odd-man rushes and, regardless of Miller being able to erase them, the defense mustn't charge forward constantly. Their greatest strength is also a weakness as while they have a terrific array of goaltending, it's created slow starts and deficits because of how much they rely on it. 

Testing Rask from all areas is common sense because of his inexperience, but it may come down to the perfect shots and quality chances deciding the outcomes. Lively starts along with matching the intensity of Boston will do the job.

Boston Bruins

Player Playoff Games Played Points
Steve Begin 23 4
Patrice Bergeron 18 9
Zdeno Chara 63 20
Andrew Ference 61 21
Matt Hunwick 1 0
David Krejci 18 13
Milan Lucic 17 11
Daniel Paille 1 0
Mark Recchi 151 123
Michael Ryder 32 21
Miroslav Satan 73 44
Mark Stuart 18 2
Vladimir Sobotka 6 2
Marco Sturm 45 19
Shawn Thornton 32 1
Blake Wheeler 8 0
Dennis Wideman 17 10
Goalie Playoff Games Played Wins
Tim Thomas 18 10














Headliner: Zdeno Chara

The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Too bad Chara doesn't tumble to the ice easily. Slovakia's behemoth will have a handful of duties such as tutoring the younger defensemen, playing in all of the urgent moments and possibly taking on extra ice time than usual because of Dennis Seidenberg's absence.

Chara didn't shine in the NHL straightaway like Myers, but reached great heights (pun intended) in Ottawa and became even wiser with the Bruins. Marco Sturm is the only 20-goal man on the team, giving last year's Norris Trophy winner motive to use his heavy shot as often as possible.

Maverick: David Krejci

Krejci salvaged a decent season as a sophomore by picking himself up after the Olympic break and producing consistently. In theory, he lines up in the center position, but has license to roam wherever the mood takes him. A player of uncommon vision and inventiveness, he is also a confirmed team man, more interested in setting up colleagues than in personal glory.

His playmaking will glue the offense together hopefully, for their sake, because top-center Marc Savard is battling a concussion and the forwards aren't efficient enough to score by themselves.

Young Gun: Milan Lucic

Muscular power forward Milan Lucic is perfectly at home denting peoples faces with his fists or putting players into the glass. It's understandable to forget that he's just 21, in his third year. However, he owns an underrated tag on his offensive game despite having relatively soft hands and holding the puck in the corner as long as he wants.

Buffalo's languished a long period for a performer designed like Lucic. By throwing his body, frightening the Sabre forwards and walking the walk, the fearless instigator will relish each moment of this battle.

Wild Card: Tuukka Rask

Outplay a Vezina Trophy winner for the starting goaltending duties? Check. Lead the league in save percentage and goals against average? Check. Become the pivotal figure of your side's dreadful season? Check. Win a postseason series? Unknown. While the Finn did climb above Miller in the save percentage and goals against average categories, he played 24 less games.

Rask's accomplishments cannot be ignored though, and were he given a wider window, may have been the leading candidate for a Calder Trophy. That being said, goaltending is the crucial element, not a section a coach wants no experience in. Steve Mason and the Columbus Blue Jackets discovered that the hard way in 2009.

What To Do, What To Do?

Boston holds the physical advantage with tough hombres like Chara, Lucic and Mark Stuart. To keep Buffalo's forwards comfortably out of Rask's reach, they'll play the body without jeopardizing any real estate. If the forwards can bank in their better chances, it'll put Buffalo on their heels and create confidence in beating Miller.

If not, the Sabres will feed off the heroics and take it up a notch. Playing with the lead is how both of these sides go about their business usually. First goals can decide each game in this series because of the stellar goaltending. Who will slip up and who will step up?

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