Standings, statistics and history are irrelevant in the NHL playoffs because heart, determination and execution take over as soon as the regular season ends. New heroes score the game-winning goals in overtime. Desperate clubs may propel themselves further than they could have imagined. Rookies become legends overnight with their heroics. It's not the size of the dog in the fight, its the size of the fight in the dog.
Prepare all you want, but the one aspect everybody should expect is the unpredictable. With seven of this year's series' reaching a two-one advantage in games won and the other knotted at one apiece, coasting into the second round will not be happening. Of those seven match-ups that have played three games, four of the underdogs are staring closer at an advancement in the face.
Boston, the worst offensive team during their campaign, is one of them. They lead the Buffalo Sabres, 2-1, heading into game four hoping to add another victory before returning to New York. While there is obviously pressure on the Sabres to deliver a win, the Bruins aren't free and clear either. A win for Buffalo places them back in the driver's seat; a situation in which friendly decisions on home ice do the rest.
Boston has stuck to its game plan by finishing checks, pressing the issue and skating hard; they sort of have no choice due to their scoring issues. But the Sabres haven't truly gotten started. Their penchant for counter-attacking isn't best served for the Bruins, who stay behind the puck proficiently, and the expectations for them to dictate play against an underestimated club finds Lindy Ruff's men - like their supporters - frustrated.
Why that is? They can't settle into an offensive groove because Boston is paying attention to the details and outworking Buffalo. Forget about Thomas Vanek and Jochen Hecht sitting in the press boxes; it's no excuse for Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and Tim Connolly resembling minnows, not star forwards. Marc Savard, Mark Stuart and Dennis Seidenberg aren't available for Boston, yet they're coping fine.
Performing well in game three, Buffalo's undoing was an Andrej Sekera pinch and a lost battle by Tim Kennedy to Mark Recchi. That's it, but that's all it takes. They'd be wise to draw up the same tactics on Thursday (drive to the net, screen Rask and take the body) and pray for their star performers to show up. As level-headed as Tuukka Rask has been, the Finnish goaltender is receiving strokes of luck. There were pucks he had no sight of, but they hit a part of his body somehow. Drew Stafford, who saw an accurate, potentially game-tying wrister pawed away in the dying minutes, may beg to differ.
Nothing lasts forever, especially good fortune. If they keep air-mailing pucks at Rask, a few are bound to take a wicked bounce or deflection. For the moment, Buffalo's best in-form player is Mike Grier, showing why a veteran figure mixes naturally with the playoffs. Vicious checks wear down the body and as a big figure, one of his duties is to ram opponents into the boards.
How does 20 hits in three games sound? Patrick Kaleta, Steve Montador and Pominville are tied for second with 11. Grier has taken it upon himself to test Rask 12 times; the most shots on the team. The rest of the roster can learn endlessly from the knowledge and smarts Grier carries. Zdeno Chara and Recchi have been Boston's most influential forces, but Johnny Boychuk's gotten inside the Sabres' heads. Eliminating Vanek for the time being and laying out Matt Ellis with a terrific open-ice hit, he's injected sufficient toughness into the group.
Responding to Boychuk's tactics, a gritty player like Raffi Torres or Montador has to take charge by fighting or catching someone with their head down. Craig Rivet did it in March at Tampa Bay following a few tough defeats. The captain fought Todd Fedoruk in the opening minutes sparking the Sabres to a four-goal cushion. This is what the playoffs are the definition of.
Connolly is above David Krejci, Pominville is superior to Marco Sturm, Roy is more talented than Patrice Bergeron and Ryan Miller is ahead of Rask's level. Buffalo's abilities are equipped better, but Boston has taken up the mental section of the game. They believe they will defeat the Sabres.
But this series isn't close to finishing. In fact, it's only beginning for the Buffalo Sabres, who didn't claw through 82 regular season matches for an early playoff exit.