BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -Sabres coach Lindy Ruff already knows there's enough bad blood between these teams and too much on the line
So he's not about to make anything close to a derogatory comment about the Ottawa Senators, especially with the winner of this series going to the Stanley Cup finals.
No matter that Chris Neil's blindside hit knocked out Buffalo co-captain Chris Drury and sparked an on-ice melee in February. Ruff considered it history.
The coach also made sure to praise the Senators for winning the first two playoff rounds.
"You look at it, I think the two best teams in the East are playing," he said, a day after the Sabres eliminated the New York Rangers with a 5-4 win in Game 6 of their second-round series.
Don't get Ruff, wrong, though. When asked if there's animosity between these Northeast Division rivals, he replied with a smile: "Ask me that after Game 1."
The Sabres, as the NHL's top-seeded team, will host Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday and Saturday.
What's clear is that a Sabres-Senators matchup has been one most anticipated by hockey fans on both sides of the New York-Ontario border since the Sabres dispatched Ottawa in five games of a second-round series last year.
"There's a lot of history," Ruff said. "Whether that has any effect on it, I can't tell you right now. They've got all the motivation they need, and we've got lots of motivation."
The Senators are certainly up for the challenge.
"There's been a lot of contact between the two organizations, and I think that's terrific," Senators coach Bryan Murray said. "I think we thought that we were one of the good teams in the second half of the year and we knew they were the best team in the East for the most part of the year. So I think it's a great matchup for us."
Ottawa outscored Buffalo 33-25 in winning five of eight regular-season meetings, but the Sabres won two of the last three. That includes a 6-5 shootout win at Buffalo on Feb. 22, when the Sabres rallied from a two-goal deficit and overcame the loss of Drury, who was knocked out and bloodied by Neil's hit early in the second period.
The play sparked a brawl involving all 12 players on the ice, led to 100 minutes in penalties and the NHL fining Ruff $10,000.
"It's behind us," Ruff said. "I don't think that lingers any longer. And going into today, I didn't feel like I was going to have to address that."
The Senators are a little more rested, off since Saturday when they beat New Jersey 3-2 to clinch their series in five games. Ottawa also needed only five games to win its first-round series against Pittsburgh.
The Sabres have had more difficulty in advancing to the conference finals for the second consecutive year. Buffalo endured uncharacteristic lapses, particularly on offense, in struggling past the New York Islanders in five games in the first round.
And Ruff acknowledged that the Rangers - especially goalie Henrik Lundqvist - gave his team a scare. Lundqvist almost single-handedly beat the Sabres before Buffalo rallied to win the final two, including a 2-1 overtime win in Game 5. Drury scored the tying goal with less than 8 seconds left in regulation.
"We've had some disappointing periods of play, which I think has taken some of the wind out of our sails," Ruff said. "So we understand it. Our own players made the statements that we need to play better."
Forward Thomas Vanek doesn't believe the Sabres will need much to get up for Ottawa.
"The guys talk about how you've got to kind of hate the team before you can really get a rivalry going," Vanek said. "The Islanders, it took a few games. With the Rangers, it took a few games. I don't think it's going to take a game at all in this series. I think the bad blood is there from before."