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Sabres-Senators Preview @NHLdotcom

Even though they finished with a better record than the Ottawa Senators during the 2006-07 regular season, the Buffalo Sabres were not nearly as good in the playoffs.

The difference appears even greater this season.

These clubs are at opposite ends of the Northeast Division as they meet Thursday for the first time since the Eastern Conference finals.

This budding rivalry continues in Ottawa, where Buffalo won its most recent visit on May 16 but that was its only victory in last season's conference finals. The Senators won that series in five games, the same number it took the Sabres to oust Ottawa in the East semifinals in 2006.

Ottawa won five of the eight meetings during the 2006-07 regular season, but finished eight points behind Buffalo for the division title and the East's best record.

This season has seen the Senators (14-2-0) get off to a fast start with a league-high 28 points, while Buffalo (6-9-1) is tied with Washington for the fewest in the East with 13.

"We want to beat those guys. They're the best right now and we're right at the bottom," Sabres left wing Thomas Vanek said. "I think if you want to kick-start your season, that's the way to do it."

The drop-off from Buffalo does not come as a major surprise, considering Vanek was the only one of their three young superstars they were able to re-sign during the offseason. Centers Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, who combined for 69 goals and 97 assists last season, both left via free agency and Buffalo's offense already has felt the effect.

"(The Sabres) have lost some key guys. They've been up and down - they've had some good games that I've seen on TV, and they've lost some tight ones," Ottawa defenseman Wade Redden told the team's official Web site. "They definitely miss Drury and Briere, but they've got a good young team."

The Sabres have been shut out three times after it didn't happen once all of last season. They have scored 20 goals over the last 11 games, including three in their last four contests.

Vanek has gone pointless during that stretch and has only 10 points overall after finishing last season with 84, including a team-best 43 goals.

"Obviously, two key guys aren't here any more and things aren't going so well right now," Vanek said. "It's easy to point at those two players right there and look at it as an excuse. But we don't look at it as an excuse. ... We feel like we're a very good team."

There's no question the Senators are. They have won nine of 10, and have scored fewer than three goals in a game just three times all season.

Their offense may only get better Thursday with the return of center Jason Spezza, who has missed the last six games with a groin injury.

After coach John Paddock thought about not putting Spezza back on the top line, considering the team went 5-1 without him, it appears he will be back between Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson as Ottawa fans are accustomed.

Maybe the good news for Buffalo is that the Senators' two losses this season were both at home, and their power play has struggled lately with only one goal in its last 17 chances.

"We know we're playing a desperate hockey club," Spezza said. "We know how we felt last year when we were in that position. ... All they're thinking about is trying to get out of their slump and win hockey games.

"They're a dangerous hockey team."

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