BUFFALO, N.Y. (CP) - Oleg Saprykin began the playoffs in the press box. On Thursday night he was the Game 1 hero in the NHL's Eastern Conference final, just another example of the depth in the mighty arsenal of the Ottawa Senators.
"It's a great team. These guys have played together for a long time," Saprykin, a trade deadline acquisition, said after Ottawa's 5-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres. "I just had to wait for my chance to get in the lineup and help the team win."
The fourth-line winger scored 7:41 into the third period to put ahead Ottawa ahead for good at 3-2, the Senators responding strongly after giving up a 2-0 lead. But these aren't the same Senators of yesteryear.
"We're a different group in here," said star winger Dany Heatley. "There's a different feeling in here, a different vibe. What you saw out there tonight was guys not getting rattled, not being nervous."
Those should be chilling words to the top-ranked Sabres, who were outclassed by the fourth-seeded Senators in Game 1. Buffalo committed 19 turnovers to Ottawa's eight, the Senators forcing the Sabres into bad decisions with a smart forecheck.
"It is a concern," said Sabres winger Jason Pominville. "Especially against them, a team with tons of creative guys who can make you pay. You definitely don't want to turn the puck over. We got especially sloppy after the game was tied 2-2."
Dean McAmmond, Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fisher also scored for the red-hot Senators, who lost last year's first game to the Sabres en route to a five-game series exit in the second round.
"We're a different hockey club than last year," said Sens head coach Bryan Murray. "Our younger players are better, they've got more experience. Getting the first game here sets a nice tone for us."
Toni Lydman and Maxim Afinogenov replied for the Sabres, who are 1-13 all-time in best-of-seven series after dropping Game 1.
Game 2 in the best-of-seven series goes in Buffalo Saturday night and fans can only hope they once again get what they witnessed in Game 1, big hits, great passing and solid goaltending - hockey at its best.
As expected the Sabres' shutdown defence pair of Lydman and Henrik Tallinder drew the assignment of trying to stop Spezza's top line with Alfredsson and Heatley, and while the Senators trio didn't score 5-on-5 they certainly had their fair share of chances. The Sabres, who also put Chris Drury's line against Spezza, must find a way to better minimize the Sens stars.
"We did create a lot of chances," said Alfredsson. "We hit some posts. We skated really well. I thought we moved the puck well."
The Sabres also continued to struggle on the power play, going 0-for-5 on the night, while the Senators were 2-for-6. Buffalo must find a way to break through with the man advantage or this series will be a short one.
Sens goalie Ray Emery stopped 18 of 20 shots while Buffalo's Ryan Miller was much busier, saving 29 of 33 shots.
Emery is public enemy No. 1 here ever since he beat up former Sabres goalie Martin Biron during a brawl in February. And the crowd wasted no time in mockingly chanting, "Emery, Emery," after he juggled an easy shot early in the game.
But the Senators quieted the crowd by taking a 2-0 lead, Fisher beating Miller five-hole on a short-handed breakaway 4:32 into the game, Sabres defenceman Dmitri Kalinin coughing it up at the Ottawa blue-line, and Alfredsson blasting a one-timer from the point at 7:54 on a 4-on-3 power play.
The nervous tension in the building gave way to cheers when Afinogenov cut into the lead at 10:55, slamming it home at the side of the net after a juicy rebound from Emery.
Lydman had 18,690 fans at HSBC Arena rocking again at 8:45 in the second period, skating out from corner a la Jean Beliveau and stuffing it five-hole.
But instead of panicking at 2-2, Ottawa's resolve got firmer. The Senators began beating the Sabres to loose pucks and taking the game over.
"That's probably the major difference from this team and teams in the past," said Spezza. "Our composure in those types of situations - that's experience."
It was tied through 40 minutes but the Senators deserved a better fate, outshooting the Sabres 24-15 but frustrated by several point-blank saves from Miller, including a huge one off Heatley during a Senators power play.
Heatley was absolutely robbed again one minute into the third period, Miller's pad save keeping it 2-2. Emery showed he was no slouch, stopping Adam Mair from in-close four minutes later.
Ottawa's fourth line then broke though for the winner, Saprykin deftly re-directing a pass from the sideboards by McAmmond at 7:41 to give the Senators a 3-2 lead they would not relinquish.
"It hit the right spot on my stick and went in," said Saprykin, shrugging his shoulders.
Spezza made it 4-2 on the power play with 4:12 left in the game, slipping a rebound from the slot past Miller. McAmmond hit the open net with 13 seconds left and the Senators took away Buffalo's home-ice advantage.
Notes: Forward Patrick Eaves (head) remained out for the Senators while tough guy Brian McGrattan and defenceman Lawrence Nycholat were the other notable scratches ... Forwards Drew Stafford and Daniel Paille and tough guy Andrew Peters were healthy scratches for the Sabres ... Buffalo won Game 1 in Ottawa last spring, 7-6 in overtime ... The Senators won five of eight regular-season games between the two clubs this year.