GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) - The New York Rangers haven't seen the Buffalo Sabres since the first day of December.
They knew how good Buffalo was then and they aren't kidding themselves about how good the Presidents' Trophy-winning Sabres are now. But the Rangers are coming off a first-round playoff sweep of the Atlanta Thrashers and feel way better about their game these days.
"I don't say they're the cream of the crop right now," Rangers coach Tom Renney said Monday. "I'm not suggesting that I don't want to give them credit, but we're where we are because we belong here, too. We'll let the series play itself out."
The teams met four times in the regular season, all within New York's first 26 games and Buffalo's first 25. The Sabres won each matchup, including three decided after regulation, to improve to 20-3-2.
New York, however, was holding a slim lead in the Atlantic Division that soon evaporated. The Rangers slipped to 12th in the Eastern Conference 2?? months later and nearly missed the playoffs.
Buffalo (53-22-7) went wire to wire to earn the top seed in the Stanley Cup playoffs and then eliminated the New York Islanders in a five-game, first-round series.
"I don't think anybody at the start of the year ... would've been anxious to play against a team like Buffalo, but it's such a big challenge," forward Brendan Shanahan said.
The Rangers (42-30-10) were the first team to get out of the first round when they dispatched the Thrashers. New York hadn't advanced to the conference semifinals since 1997 and hadn't won in a sweep since beating the Islanders in the first round of the 1994 playoffs en route to the Stanley Cup title.
Quite a turnaround for a team that needed a 17-6-5 run to qualify for the playoffs in its next-to-last game of the season. That spurt can be tied to the arrival of hard-hitting agitator Sean Avery, who joined the Rangers on Feb. 6 in a trade with Los Angeles.
Avery was the Rangers' best answer for the physical punishment the Thrashers dished out. He countered by annoying Atlanta's top forwards, Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Kozlov, so much that they became more focused on the five-foot-10 fireball than producing the offence that made the Thrashers a playoff team for the first time.
More distractions are surely in store for the Sabres' small yet deadly quick forwards and their defencemen. Chris Drury scored five goals - including the overtime winner on Nov. 26 - and set up two others against the Rangers. Daniel Briere had three goals and three assists, winning the Nov. 5 game in the extra session.
"Things change, so you want to stay current," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "Down the stretch they've obviously been one of the better teams. They've had a more balanced attack and are a lot stronger team in their own end."
And the early matchups were all before Avery came to town.
"I'm just going to go out and try to punish their (defence) and make them realize this is going to be a real long series for them," Avery said. "I'm going to try to hurt them and hit them and get in their face as much as I can. It's going to turn into a war as of Wednesday."
By then it'll be a week since the Rangers played.
They practised Friday and Saturday before wrapping up the weekend with another day off. It was then that New Jersey's series-ending victory over Tampa Bay ensured New York would face Buffalo, the highest-scoring team with 308 goals.
Thomas Vanek netted 43, followed by Drury (37), Jason Pominville (34) and Briere (32).
"It's going to be a tough matchup for sure," Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr said.
Renney said the first 30 to 40 minutes of practice Monday were good. The second half, not so much. He sensed his players wanted to move on to different things, like playing games.
Rest is good, idling isn't.
"I'd rather practice than still be playing in Game 7 in Atlanta," goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. "We have to keep the intensity up and just prepare ourselves for a big fight."
Lundqvist, who allowed three goals in the final three games against Atlanta, faced the Sabres once in the regular season and admitted he didn't recall the contests. He knows how those games turned out and is quite familiar with Buffalo's dangerous scoring style.
He gave up three goals in an overtime loss Nov. 26.
"It's almost like two new teams here," he said. "If we keep playing the way we have, we should be in good shape."
Which is exactly the message the confident Renney presented.
"We're a different team than what we were three months ago," he said. "Buffalo is what they are, so maybe we're a little less familiar to them than they are to us. They are a good team and I'm not going to take anything away from them, but I'm not going to pump their tires, either."