BUFFALO, N.Y. (CP) - The Buffalo Sabres sleepwalked through a first-round series win over the New York Islanders, a five-game set that featured very little emotion.
"I don't know what it was with the Islanders but there just wasn't a lot of hatred," Sabres star Daniel Briere said Tuesday, the eve of a second-round series with the New York Rangers. "You look at some of the other series and some of them they were destroying each other left and right. With our series, everybody was nice to each other ...
"But I'm expecting that to change pretty quickly."
The sixth-seeded Rangers seem intent on raising the emotional bar a notch before the puck is even dropped for Wednesday's opener at HSBC Arena.
Agitator Sean Avery and head coach Tom Renney raised eyebrows with their comments to New York reporters Monday.
Avery on the Sabres: "I'm going to hurt them, I'm going to hit them, I'm going to be in their face as much as I can."
Renney on the Sabres: "I don't say they're the cream of the crop right now. I'm not suggesting that I don't want to give them credit, but we're where we are because we belong here, too."
Nothing Avery says should come as a surprise but Renney's comment about the President's Trophy winners seemed out of left field. Briere, for one, was caught off guard when told of it after practice Tuesday.
"That's always good for our room," Briere said with a laugh. "But I'm not going to get into a war (of words) with the other guys, or at least not yet. We'll see after a few games."
Renney, on a conference call with reporters Tuesday, didn't back down from his comment but clarified that it wasn't meant as a shot to the Sabres but rather simply the fact that at this time of year it's hard to rank teams.
"At this stage of the game, nobody knows who the best team in the NHL is," explained Renney. "With respect to the question as it was posed to me, I don't know if Buffalo is the best team. I know they're a darn good team and we certainly will have our hands full here. Clearly for me, anyway, we go into this series as the underdog.
"But we also believe that we belong in the tournament, that we've worked our way into this position, and only time will tell exactly how good either of us are. Really, the Stanley Cup is handed out in the middle of June, not yesterday morning at a little press conference."
One NHL coach from another club told The Canadian Press over the weekend that he believed the Rangers were the team to beat right now in the Eastern Conference.
They have gone 17-3-4 since the Feb. 27 trade deadline, including their first-round sweep of Atlanta, while Buffalo has gone 16-7-2 over the same stretch.
"They're allowed to think whatever they want," Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff said when told of Renney's comment. "They feel good about themselves, they've had a tremendous record. They swept Atlanta, a very good team. They've got a lot of aspects of their game that are going well.
"We know this will be tremendous challenge."
Avery will become a focal point at some point in this series, there's hardly any doubt of that. The rugged winger drove Thrashers star Ilya Kovalchuk crazy, to the point where the Russian winger chased Avery down and tried to fight him in Game 3, knocking both players out of the game. Mission accomplished.
"They're agitators, their goal is to try and get people off their game," Ruff said of players like Avery. "My goal is to keep our players on their game. I have to succeed in that."
Sabres centre Chris Drury, co-captain of the club along with Briere, said Avery's antics overshadows his other contributions to the Rangers.
"I think he's an extremely talented player beside all the other stuff," said Drury. "The Rangers' record since they got him (21-6-6), they've been on a tear, he's brought a lot to their team, on and off the ice. And some of the plays he was making in the first round, one game he played like 21 minutes. ... So our focus is more on how good a player he is rather than the other stuff."
Briere refused to bite when asked about Avery.
"I'm not going to comment on him," he said. "He's just a player on their team. We're trying not to get the focus on him."
Buffalo's priority is to find it's 'A' game. Whether they admit it or not, they got by the Islanders with their 'B' game and didn't impress many people while doing it. The 'B' game won't cut it against the Rangers.
"I don't think so, I don't think so," said Briere. "I believe we'll need to be much better than we were in the first round."
Part of the problem in the first round was that the Sabres had difficulty adjusting to being such an overwhelming favourite, a role they haven't been that accustomed to over the years.
"I think the worst of the pressure was in the first round because you're No. 1 against No. 8 and everybody just expects you to walk through them," said Briere.
When the Islanders earned a split in the opening two games at Buffalo, the Sabres felt the heat.
"We left our building tied 1-1, (Rick) DiPietro was back (in goal) for them, you're wondering if he can carry that team...," said Ruff. "You start asking 50 questions and you only have 40 answers. You feel it. As a coach you see your players feel it. ...
"There just seemed to be a lot of pressure with the David and Goliath thing in the last series," added Ruff. "We were this, and this, and this, and this, and I think that pressure mounted. That's all behind us now. We've got two very good teams going at it."