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by Rob Crean / Buffalo Sabres
After 82 games, the real fun can now begin.

The Sabres were on the ice at HSBC Arena on Monday for their first practice of the postseason as preparations for facing the defending Eastern Conference Champion Philadelphia Flyers began.  As a team, the Sabres are ready to get going in their first round series, which begins Thursday night.

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“As I told the team, this is a fun time of year,” said Head Coach Lindy Ruff.  “You go through segments of the season that drag on and you go through some tough stretches.  Now it’s time to have fun.  For us, it’s the time of year you’ve got to enjoy.”

4/11 - Lindy Ruff Interview

Buffalo will embark on its fourth playoff appearance in the last six seasons, and will enter the postseason riding a wave of momentum after going 16-4-4 over its final 24 games and 8-1-1 in the last 10 outings.  According to Ryan Miller, the team is playing much better entering the playoffs compared to this time last season, when the end result was a first round loss in six games to Boston.

“I think last year we were losing traction and this year we’ve had to gain ground to make the playoffs,” said Miller.  “Last year, we were sliding and we managed to hold on to our division but I don’t think we finished with all that impressive of a record. This year, I think we did a better job of working our way into the playoffs because we had to, but I think it’s been playoff mode here for a while so I think we need to just stay the course.  We’ve been playing hockey that’s good enough to beat anybody and I think we just have to continue doing that.” 

Miller added that he can sense a growing buzz for the team among fans and expects them to be excited for the playoffs, as well.

“We need everybody in this city behind us to do this the right way.  That’s just how it goes,” Miller said.  “Going into Philly, we’re going to need to be a close bunch because (the fans) are going to be charged up there.  It’s the same here. We need that energy, we feed off it.  We need people to be up and excited for even the smallest plays.”

As I told the team, this is a fun time of year. You go through segments of the season that drag on and you go through some tough stretches. Now it’s time to have fun. For us, it’s the time of year you’ve got to enjoy.” - Head Coach Lindy Ruff
Thomas Vanek, who was named the NHL’s First Star of the Week on Monday after posting two consecutive three-point games last week including a hat trick against Tampa Bay, is looking forward to once again experiencing the playoff atmosphere.

“We put a lot of work in to get here, and now the fun begins,” said Vanek, the Sabres’ leader in goals, assists and points this season.  “As a team, and for myself, I don’t want to change too much.  I thought the last three months we’ve been playing such good hockey.  Even when we lost, we had chances to win.  I think in Philly, Flyers fans are going to be excited, they’re always loud.  The players themselves are going to be pumped up.  The game is going to be faster, more hitting.  I think, as a group, we need to play the same, play the way we’re able to, and it should be a good series.”

With Game 1 not starting until the second day of NHL playoff action, Jason Pominville said these days off leading up to the series opener are an exciting time.

“The night before (Game 1), games are going to start so you’re going to be able to catch a game or two on TV.  For guys who haven’t been there, to be able to see what it’s all about and the atmosphere and what’s around it, it’s just great.  It’s an enjoyable time and I think everybody is looking forward to the challenge that’s up ahead of us,” said Pominville. 

There were two notable absences at practice on Monday, as both Tim Connolly and Andrej Sekera were held out of the skate.

According to Ruff, Connolly was given an extra day off, but he did not elaborate.  Sekera has missed the last two games after straining a muscle in his upper body.

“He’s getting better.  We got him a good off-ice workout.  He still couldn’t get back on the ice today, so maybe tomorrow,” said Ruff.

He also said Jochen Hecht (upper body) was not close to returning, but did not rule him out of playing in the opening round series.  Mike Grier (knee) practiced today and “skated better” according to Ruff, and has a chance at playing in the Philadelphia series.

Derek Roy was on the ice for practice and participated in drills in a non-contact role as Ruff predicted he would last week, but will remain sidelined as he continues to rehab from his torn quad tendon suffered back on Dec. 23.

The NHL announced on Monday that the Sabres are among four teams that will open the 2011-12 regular season in Europe.  Buffalo will open the campaign by playing the Anaheim Ducks in Helsinki, Finland on Oct. 7.  The following day, the team will face the Los Angeles Kings in Berlin, Germany.

Hecht, a native of Mannheim, Germany, talked about the significance of playing in his home country.

“It will be a nice experience, going to Berlin.  It’s a hockey-crazy town, it’s really turned into that.  They have a nice arena, and they’re back in the playoffs with their home team, so it’s a great place to go,” he said.  “The arena seats about 15,000 people or so, and they sell out on a regular basis, and I bet when we come it will be sold out for sure.  It will be nice for the U.S. guys who haven’t played in a World Championship see what kind of atmosphere it is to play in Germany.”

4/11 - Jochen Hecht Interview

Miller, who played in the 2003 World Championship in Helsinki, is also looking forward to the rare chance to play an NHL game overseas.

“I think it’s a unique opportunity.  It’s something I’ve had the chance to do in the World Championships is go over there and play hockey and experience that culture of hockey.  It was a lot of fun for me to have those opportunities and I think it’s good to get the NHL over there.  We do showcase a lot of the world’s best talent and we should do something to give back to those countries that develop players,” Miller said.
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