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Sabres getting breaks and getting healthy as they prepare for Senators @NHLdotcom

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -Darcy Regier always has been struck by the simplicity of Al Arbour's advice about building a Stanley Cup champion.

"He said you need good players," the Buffalo Sabres general manager said, recalling a conversation with Arbour, who coached the New York Islanders to four titles in the 1980s.

The answer wasn't enough to satisfy Regier.

"I thought, 'Oh, Al, you've got to do better than that,"' said Regier, a former Islanders assistant GM. "And he said, 'Well, you need a lot of luck - a lot of good luck."'

The top-seeded Sabres have plenty of talent going into the Eastern Conference finals for a second consecutive year. And they're finally getting a fair share of breaks - particularly on the injury front - as they prepare to face the Ottawa Senators in a best-of-seven series that opens at Buffalo on Thursday.

When forward Paul Gaustad returned for Game 5 of Buffalo's second-round series against the New York Rangers, it marked the first time this season the Sabres had a full complement of healthy players.

That's a big switch from last year, when a rash of injuries - Buffalo lost four defensemen and center Tim Connolly - ended the Sabres' run in a Game 7 loss to eventual champion Carolina.

"At this time of year, nothing's easy," Regier said. "And you need things to go well for you."

Comparisons between the Islanders of old and today's Sabres are vastly unfair, but Buffalo has emerged as one of the NHL's top franchises in the two seasons since competition resumed after a yearlong labor dispute.

Counting playoffs, the Sabres have won an NHL-leading 124 games in two years and are coming off a season in which they won the President's Trophy and scored a league-leading 308 goals.

What's missing is the one objective the Sabres have had since the season began: Winning the franchise's first title.

"We set that goal. It's something that we've taken a lot of pride in," coach Lindy Ruff said. "We put a lot of expectations on ourselves from Day 1. We felt we were a good enough team that could contend."

Ruff has the Sabres making their fourth conference final appearance in his nine seasons. The team reached the Stanley Cup finals once during that span, in 1999, when bad luck struck again as Brett Hull scored the title-clinching goal with his foot in the crease - which was against the rules at the time.

While the Sabres have enjoyed at least some measure of postseason success, the Senators have known only misfortune, earning the tag of perennial underachievers.

For a team making its 10th consecutive postseason appearance, the Senators have little to show during that stretch. That includes last year when Ottawa, as the East's top seed, was dispatched by Buffalo in five games of a second-round series.

Despite registering 100 points six times in the past 10 seasons, the Senators are making only their second conference final appearance. They lost their first one in 2003, dropping Game 7 at home to New Jersey.

The Senators have shown no signs of wilting this postseason, needing five games each to eliminate Pittsburgh and New Jersey in the first two rounds.

Ruff sees a difference in the Senators.

"If that history would've played into it, they probably would've went out in the first or second round," Ruff said. "You have to give them credit, there's been no history right there."

Ottawa's getting solid goaltending from Ray Emery, and strong production from its No. 1 line. Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza have combined for 16 goals and 37 points so far in the playoffs.

"I said to the players this morning they should be real proud of themselves," Senators coach Bryan Murray said Monday. "They should be real proud of the fact they worked this hard, sacrificed as much as they have and now have a chance to be in the final four to take a run at something meaningful."

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