Traditional NE rivals clash as Bruins face Buffalo
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While the Boston Bruins were more concerned with simply making the Stanley Cup Playoffs than angling for an opponent, they still have to be pretty happy with this matchup.
Not only have the Bruins had some success against the Buffalo Sabres, going 4-2-0 against their Northeast Division rivals and out-scoring them 14-11 in the process, even in the two games Buffalo won in the series, the difference in each was just one goal.
Plus, Boston has traditionally fared well against Buffalo in the postseason. The Sabres won the 1999 Eastern Conference semis, but has lost the other five series between the two teams.
It is not history that will win this series, but the performances during the next two weeks or so by the players involved in this intriguing series.
Most likely, it will be a low-scoring, tightly-played series. Neither team has lit up the scoreboard this season and each features a world-class goalie, although for the Bruins it will not be the one most people expected.
Everybody knows about Buffalo's Ryan Miller after his brilliance in the Olympics, leading Team USA to a silver medal. For Boston, it was supposed to be Tim Thomas, Miller's backup at the Olympics. Instead, youngster Tuukka Rask has stolen the No. 1 job and added even more intrigue to this matchup.
Derek Roy led the Sabres in scoring for the third-straight season, posting 26 goals and 43 assists for 69 points, tied for 30th in the NHL. He was one of four Sabres to score more than 20 goals. Thomas Vanek led with 28, Jason Pominville had 24 and Jochen Hecht had 21. Tim Connolly led the Sabres with 48 assists, and he had 65 points. Vanek had 53 points. Hecht had 42 and Drew Stafford had 34.
The Sabres had seven full-time forwards finish with a plus rating, headed by Hecht's plus-14 and Pominville's plus-13. Tim Connolly was plus-10 while Roy and Vanek were plus-9. Stafford and Patrick Kaleta were also plus for the season.
The Buffalo forwards do all this while playing for one of the NHL's tightest defensive teams. The Sabres were fourth-best in allowing only 2.45 goals per game. Under coach Lindy Ruff's system, good defense starts up front and this group of forwards has been playing in the system for a long time.
Boston has struggled for offense all season, managing just 196 goals, the fewest in the League. Those struggles have only intensified since top center Marc Savard was excised from the lineup after suffering a concussion in early March.
Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, who tied for the team scoring lead with 52 points apiece, have tried to pick up the slack, but they need even more help.
So, it is scoring by committee for this Boston team, which fortunately has most of the fundamentals covered with its lower-line forwards.
Milan Lucic has had a disappointing season, derailed by injuries, but is the type of power forward that excels in the gritty atmosphere of the playoffs. Daniel Paille and Steve Begin are energy guys that can do a little of everything.
Rookie Tyler Myers, the No. 12 pick in the 2008 Entry Draft, is one of the leading candidates for the Calder Trophy with 11 goals and 37 assists. He leads the Sabres with an average of 23:44 minutes per game and he was plus-13 with 3 power-play goals; simply a remarkable season for a player that didn't turn 20 until Feb. 1. That's great, but Myers, at 6-foot-8 and 222 pounds, is also an impressive physical force.
Steve Montador was a great off-season signing, posting 5 goals and 18 assists to be the second-leading scorer on Buffalo's defense. Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman are great veterans who have played together for many years and make a very effective combination. Both had 4 goals and 20 points this season.
Young Chris Butler was third in defense scoring with 20 assists and 21 points, but he was also minus-15. He's a work in progress. Captain Craig Rivet, 35, showed signs of slowing this season and his average ice time dropped to 18:13 minutes per game.
Normally a strength in Boston, the blue line is an area of concern entering the playoffs. That's because the Bruins are down to four healthy regulars. The club suffered a serious blow when Dennis Seidenberg, brilliant since his acquisition from Florida in early March, was lost last week to a tendon injury in his arm. Andrew Ference and Mark Stuart are also out.
Even the healthy guys aren't so healthy. Take Zdeno Chara, the reigning Norris trophy winner. He has been playing all season with a dislocated pinkie that has limited his physicality since November. Now, he is playing with a broken nose that has forced his to don a full face shield. But as Chara proved last season, he is an imposing physical package that can take out even the most talented forwards off their game with his combination of skill and tenacity.
Ryan Miller is the best goalie in the world now, let alone the NHL. He went 41-18-8 in 69 games this season with a 2.22 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. He has the ability to "steal" games that his team might otherwise lose and he's been doing it for years. Backup Patrick Lalime went 4-8-2 in limited opportunities, but he's better than that. No team can match Miller and Lalime's combined 387 NHL wins.
As we mentioned in our opening, nobody expected Tim Thomas not to be in the crease if Boston reported to playoff duty in 2010. After all, he entered the season as the Vezina Trophy holder. But Tuukka Rask has stolen the job fair and square.
The rookie has been brilliant in winning 22 games and posting a 1.97 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. He also has a rookie-leading five shutouts. Rask has been even better against Buffalo this season, going 4-1 with a 1.43 GAA and .954 save percentage.
Lindy Ruff is the NHL's longest serving coach, starting with the Sabres in 1997. He's already made one trip to the Stanley Cup Final, in 1999 when his Sabres were defeated by the Dallas Stars. Ruff employs a hard forecheck with plenty of traps. He has a career record of 483-361-78-52.
Julien has milked practically everything possible out of his limited roster, but will have to be even more creative this spring as he faces some of the biggest challenges of a career that has seen him go 14-15 in three Stanley Cup Playoff appearances.
"We knew it was going to be a dogfight to the end. We've had the mentality that it's been a playoff game pretty much here for the last few weeks. And I think we really thrived under that sort of mentality and been playing some pretty good hockey lately." -- Boston forward Blake Wheeler
"They are a tough team to play and they have a very good goaltender. They played well down the stretch. We're going to have to play well."-- Lindy Ruff on the Bruins
The Sabres ranked only 17th in power-play efficiency, converting on only 17.6 percent of chances. Buffalo was much better at home, converting on 21.3 percent of home power plays. They were the second-best penalty-killing team, stopping the opposition 86.6 percent of the time and they were the NHL's best at home, stopping 89.8 percent of opposition power plays. Forwards Jason Pominville, Tim Connolly and Derek Roy often play the point on the power play.
Only seven playoff teams have a more ineffective power-play attack than the Bruins, who finished the season with a 18.2 success rate. The struggles are especially pronounced on the road as they scored just 14 goals on 110 opportunities (12.7 percent). Fortunately, the Bruins are as strong on the PK as they are weak on the PP. This season, Boston has killed 86.4 percent of the penalties it has faced, third-best in the NHL.
Tim Connolly, Buffalo -- The Sabres held the playmaking center out of the last nine games of the season with a foot injury. They'll need him to come back strong and balance the attack. Connolly also has a decent track record in the postseason with 5 goals and 20 points in 24 games, all with Buffalo in 2006 and 2007.
Michael Ryder, Boston -- He has struggled all season and has spent a good deal of time in Julien's doghouse. But let's not forget, this is a player who has reached the 30-goal mark twice and scored 25 or more goals four times in his six NHL seasons. He will need to produce for a Boston team that needs all offensive hands on deck to spring the upset.
Sabres will win ... Miller is Miller. He could be a strong Hart Trophy candidate as well as the Vezina Trophy winner this season and the Sabres feed off his strong play and competitive persona. The Bruins have struggled scoring all season, so the Sabres don't have to be dazzling offensively to get an edge.
Bruins will win ...Tuukka Rask continues his impressive rookie run. Make no mistake, this will be a goaltending duel throughout and Miller enters the fray with a huge advantage. But, the unflappable Rask has not let long odds bother him at all this season. He can't start now.
NHL.com Staff Writers John McGourty and Shawn P. Roarke contributed to this report.