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Underdog role suits Rangers well for Round 2

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

Buffalo's Ryan Miller started three games vs. the Rangers in the 2006-07 regular season and stopped 80 of 89 shots.
Strudwick Blog Entry: Thoughts on Round 2
NHL Releases Series Schedule

If you've had the opportunity to visit Buffalo or even speak with someone from the area in the past seven months, you already know just how much the 2006-07 Sabres mean to the local sports fans.

The Queen City has never won a title in the NHL, NFL, MLB or NBA, although Buffalo endured the agony of seeing four straight Super Bowl losses in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The city's intense hunger to put their championship drought to rest has a lot to do with the absolute mania that has gripped the area in regard to their local NHL team, the Buffalo Sabres.

Ever since the puck dropped on the 2006-07 season, Buffalo fans have been dreaming about the Stanley Cup playoffs and the Sabres' opportunity to bring a major championship to their city. They have known as far back as the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Sabres were eliminated by Carolina in seven hard-fought games, that this year's edition would be a special team.

The Sabres have hardly disappointed them, opening the season with 10 consecutive wins and riding the East's best record from wire to wire. By the time the regular season ended earlier this month, Buffalo had claimed its first Presidents' Trophy on the heels of a league-best 53-22-7 record.

Fans in Buffalo, however, aren't satisfied with the Presidents' Trophy, because they want the Cup. So there's no doubt that when the Sabres and the Rangers begin their Eastern Conference Semifinals series on Wednesday night at HSBC Arena, those local fans plan to make that desire known.

Viewed from Buffalo's perspective, the gutsy Rangers team that became one of the NHL's hottest after the trade deadline represents nothing more than an obstacle on the way to expected June glory. Although the Rangers have been playing their best hockey of the season and are coming off a four-game sweep of Atlanta in the playoffs' first round, they enter this series as a marked underdog.

Being an underdog, however, really isn't such a bad thing for a team that began its current surge at a point in the regular season when critics questioned its playoff potential.

The perception that Buffalo is the NHL powerhouse and the Rangers are a decided underdog extends well beyond Western New York. At the Madison Square Garden Training Center on Monday, as the team prepared for its upcoming series with the Sabres, Rangers alternate captain Brendan Shanahan was asked if he had hoped the Blueshirts drew Ottawa in the second round in order to delay facing Buffalo. Shanahan laughed at that question.

"If you're thinking about ducking teams in the playoffs," the three-time Stanley Cup champion said, "then you really shouldn't even be here."

Indeed, the Rangers have every reason to be confident heading into any playoff series, particularly one against these Presidents' Trophy winners. Although they lost all four regular season games to the Sabres, three went to overtime or a shootout, and starting goaltender Henrik Lundqvist played in only one of those.

In addition, the Rangers and Sabres have not faced each other since Dec. 1 -- both teams' longest stretch without seeing a fellow Eastern Conference opponent. That makes those early-season games a wholly unreliable measuring stick for how the teams will fare against each other so many months later. The next four wins will come a lot tougher for either team.

In their four regular-season meetings, the Sabres outscored the Rangers 17-12, but only three of the goals came against Lundqvist, whom they will face throughout this second-round playoff series. Another indication of how well the Rangers can perform against Buffalo is the fact that the regular-season series' leading scorer was Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr, who tallied eight points in four games. Those eight points came at a time when the Rangers were nowhere near the level of consistency they have maintained over the past eight weeks since the Feb. 27 NHL trade deadline.

Rangers head coach Tom Renney said the long gap between Rangers-Sabres games could work in his team's favor.

"Maybe I hope that they don't get us exactly, that they don't quite understand what we're all about yet and we can kind of sneak up on them," said Renney.

Renney said the Blueshirts have come a long way since Dec. 1, and while Buffalo is aware of that, they have yet to experience the rejuvenated Rangers for themselves.

"Everybody scouts everybody in person. Everybody can scout everybody else on DVD as well. But what you don't necessarily get from that is the actual experience of playing and being on the ice and being at ice level and getting an appreciation for that," said Renney. "I don't know that there's a lot of secrets in this game anymore, but the one thing you don't get a feel for is the character that maybe we've developed, the intensity that we play with and the fortitude that we've been able to sort of exhibit over the last six weeks. Maybe they don't have a feel for that. I'm not sure. But this is playoff hockey. We didn't get here by mistake, and Buffalo knows that as much as anybody."

Jagr, Michael Nylander and Martin Straka put up big numbers against the Sabres in 2006-07, exceeding the point totals of the Sabres top three scorers in the series, Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and Maxim Afinogenov. There's no question, however, that while the Sabres are essentially the same high-powered team they were when they last faced the Rangers on Dec. 1, the Blueshirts themselves have changed dramatically.

Three Rangers who played in the Dec. 1 game have either been traded or dropped from the active roster, which instead now includes Sean Avery, Paul Mara and Dan Girardi. The Sabres have never faced these three key players since they came to the Rangers, nor have they seen the improved Ryan Callahan, who is a far cry from kid who made his NHL debut with limited ice time on Dec. 1. Callahan, a native of nearby Rochester, grew up watching plenty of Sabres hockey, and there's no doubt he'll be highly motivated to stand out in this series.

Avery alone has radically changed the complexion of the Rangers since the games against Buffalo, and he could be the single biggest factor in a series against a Sabres team that tends to avoid the bruising style of hockey preferred by many Eastern opponents. With so much speed an skill in their lineup, it's hardly surprising that the Sabres wouldn't go out of their way to hit people, but teams that have beaten them in recent weeks have been successful at disrupting Buffalo's game with more spirited physical play.

Goaltending is always the key to the playoffs, and the Rangers have an advantage here because they have seen Buffalo's Ryan Miller several times, while the Sabres were facing backup Kevin Weekes in three of four games. Going up against Lundqvist will be a relatively new experience for Buffalo, and if the Rangers goalie continues his hot play, the Sabres big scorers could be frustrated early in the series, which would go a long way to helping the Rangers gain a crucial mental edge.

Another major difference between the teams is the Rangers' strength on special teams -- the one area where Buffalo's regular-season statistics don't reflect the Sabres' overall success.

While the Rangers were among the NHL's top 10 on the power play and a 12th-ranked team in killing penalties, Buffalo amazingly ranked in the bottom half of the league in both categories. If the Blueshirts get the better of the special teams play, they would force Buffalo to feel a lot more pressure to succeed at 5-on-5. Excluding empty-net goals, the Sabres outscored the Islanders by only a 12-9 margin in their last playoff series at even strength, while the Rangers outscored Atlanta 11-5.

Being an underdog has its benefits for the Rangers in this series. While the Blueshirts can focus on adapting to the Sabres' speed without having to worry about too much external pressure, Buffalo is carrying the weight of an entire city on its shoulders.

The pressure to win on this Sabres squad is enormous, and if the Blueshirts can disrupt them early, they could turn that pressure against Buffalo. Great regular-season teams in the past have often been unable to survive in the playoffs once their game plan went off course, and the most common criticism of the Sabres during the regular season was that they sometimes had trouble maintaining the intensity needed to continually capitalize on their remarkable depth.

As great as the Sabres were in 2006-07, the were also prone to losing streaks, including two three-game skids in January and a four-game slide in March. More than anything, these stats indicate how important it will be for the Rangers to keep the home team from mounting any kind of momentum in the form of a multi-goal lead in a game, or a multi-game lead in the series.

EASTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS SERIES
Rangers (42-30-10 regular season; 4-0 postseason) vs. Buffalo Sabres (53-22-7 regular season; 4-1 postseason)


Series Schedule
Game 1 -- April 25 Rangers at Buffalo, 7 p.m. (Versus)
Game 2 -- April 27 Rangers at Buffalo, 7 p.m. (MSG, Versus)
Game 3 -- April 29 Rangers vs. Buffalo at MSG, 2 p.m. (NBC)
Game 4 -- May 1 Rangers vs. Buffalo at MSG, 7 p.m. (Versus)
Game 5* -- May 4 Rangers at Buffalo, 7 p.m. (MSG, Versus)
Game 6* -- May 6 Rangers vs. Buffalo at MSG, 2 p.m. (NBC)
Game 7* -- May 8 Rangers at Buffalo, 7 p.m. (MSG, Versus)
* -- if necessary

Postseason Statistics

TEAM LEADERS: Sabres -- Drury, 4 goals; Dainius Zubrus, 5 assists; Drury, Briere and Zubrus, 5 points each; Adam Mair, 6 PIM. Rangers -- Nylander, 4 goals; Jagr and Fedor Tyutin, 5 assists each; Nylander, 8 points; Avery, 21 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Sabres -- Power play: 16.7 percent (4 for 24). Penalty killing: 89.5 percent (17 for 19). Rangers -- Power play: 20.8 percent (5 for 24). Penalty killing: 94.1 percent (16 for 17).

GOALTENDERS: Sabres -- Miller (4-1, 0, 2.21); Ty Conklin (0-0, 0, n/a). Rangers -- Lundqvist (4-0, 1, 1.50); Stephen Valiquette (0-0, 0, n/a); Weekes (0-0, 0, n/a)

Regular Season Statistics

STANDINGS: Sabres -- 113 points, 1st place, Northeast Division. Rangers -- 94 points, 3rd place, Atlantic Division

TEAM LEADERS: Sabres -- Thomas Vanek, 43 goals; Briere, 63 assists and 95 points; Mair, 128 PIM. Rangers -- Jagr, 30 goals, 66 assists and 96 points; Avery, 174 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Sabres -- Power play: 17.4 percent (71 for 407, 17th in NHL). Penalty killing: 81.4 percent (314 for 386, 20th in NHL). Rangers -- Power play: 18.5 percent (75 for 406, 8th in NHL). Penalty killing: 83.8 percent (335 for 400, 12th in NHL).

GOALTENDERS: Sabres -- Miller (40-16-6, 2, 2.73); Ty Conklin (3-5-2, 0, 3.34). Rangers -- Lundqvist (37-22-8, 5, 2.34); Stephen Valiquette (1-2-0, 0, 3.13); Weekes (4-6-2, 0, 3.39)

2006-07 SEASON SERIES: Sabres, 4-0-0 (Rangers, 0-1-3)

2006-07 RESULTS:

Oct. 14, 2006; Buffalo 7, Rangers 4 at HSBC Arena. Chris Drury notched his first career hat trick, and Sabres rolled off four second-period goals en route to the victory. The Sabres' onslaught came in a game that the Rangers initially led 2-0 before the tide turned in Buffalo's favor. Buffalo scored three straight goals to close the first period and two more to open the second. Shanahan tallied twice for the Rangers. Fedor Tyutin and Straka had the other Rangers goals, with Straka closing out the scoring when he converted a nice pass from Jagr with 1:26 remaining in the game. Kevin Weekes made 25 saves in defeat, while Miller got the win with 19 stops.

Nov. 5, 2006: Buffalo 4, Rangers 3 (OT) at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers came within 12 minutes of becoming this 2006-07 season's first home team to beat the Buffalo Sabres. Instead of getting two points from the game, the Rangers skated off with only half the prize, as Buffalo escaped The Garden with a victory, capped off by a Briere goal with 1:03 remaining in overtime. The OT loss was a tough way for the Blueshirts to exit a game they had completely dominated in the second period en route to a 3-1 lead on goals by Jagr, Petr Prucha and Nylander. Goals by Briere late in the second and Jason Pominville in the third forced the overtime. Rangers goaltender Weekes finished the game with 24 saves, compared to 26 by Buffalo's Martin Biron.

Nov. 26, 2006: Buffalo 3, Rangers 2 (OT) at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers battled back from a 2-0 deficit in the second period with a pair of pretty goals by Straka, only to fall to the Sabres at 1:36 of overtime. Drury delivered the knockout blow, deflecting Teppo Numminen's shot following a faceoff past Rangers goaltender Lundqvist for a Sabres victory. Lundqvist ended the game with 28 stops, while Miller had 25.

Dec. 1, 2006: Buffalo 4, Rangers 3 (SO) at HSBC Arena. In the tightest game of the season between the two teams, the Rangers stormed back from a 2-0 deficit before the Sabres prevailed in an overtime shootout. Sabres captain Briere, the leadoff shooter, scored the lone shootout goal against Rangers netminder Weekes. At the other end, Buffalo goaltender Miller was the OT hero, stopping shots by Nylander, Shanahan and Prucha to hand the Rangers their first shootout loss of the season. Trailing 2-1 after two periods, the Rangers got third-period power-play tallies from Straka and Nylander to take a 3-2 lead with 12 minutes remaining. Buffalo's Drury, a thorn in the Rangers' side all season, tied the game at 3-3 with 9:58 remaining to force the overtime. Weekes finished with 16 saves, and Miller had 36.

ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Sabres -- 28-10-3 at home; 25-12-4 on road. Rangers -- 21-15-5 on road; 21-15-5 at home.
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