In the first-round of the battle between the red-hot rookie goaltenders, Ryan Miller
gave the first blow. Miller stopped 29 of 31 shots with everything imaginable on his way to the 3-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals.
"To sum up his play, there haven't been a lot of pucks that went through him and he's made some tremendously big saves when we needed them," said Lindy Ruff of Miller's performance throughout the playoffs. "He made a couple late in the third period (against Carolina) that allow you to win a hockey game, when we probably weren't playing our best. He relishes that and I think our team feeds off that at the same time."
Miller was spectacular in the final frame making 16 saves, but received a huge boost from the Sabres defense and forwards. Buffalo blocked a ghastly 29 shots against the high-powered Carolina offense. As has become standard, Jay McKee led the team with six blocked shots, while Toni Lydman finished with five. Chris Drury was the top forward, diving in front of three shots including the final one of the game by Justin Williams.
"They had the goalie pulled and we were scrabbling," said Drury referring to the final moments of the contest. "They had a few chances, couple bang-bang plays that missed the net and Williams just wristed it at the end. I just wanted to block it and be done with that game."
For the third-straight round during the postseason, Buffalo took the opening game and will head into the RBC Center for Game Two on Monday night with a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
"It's a great feeling to win the first game and start the series out on a good note," said defenseman Henrik Tallinder, who scored Buffalo's first goal. "I don't care what the game looked like. We won and that's all that matters."
The best road team in the East during the regular season, Buffalo has now won its last four games on the road, dating back to Game Five of Buffalo's first-round series against Philadelphia.
"(The first game of a series) is huge," said Jason Pominville
. "Obviously, every game we play, we want to win but we know it gets even harder to win on the road. We got the first goal again and that was really big for us."
On a team where any and every player has played the hero, one of the most unlikely candidates stepped up in Game One. Coming out of the penalty box, McKee received a pass from Jochen Hecht
on the right wing, stickhandled into the slot and fired between the legs of rookie goaltender Cam Ward for his second goal of the postseason at 13:40 of the third period to give Buffalo the 3-1 lead.
At the time McKee's tally seemed to be just an insurance goal. But following Mike Commodore's deflected slapshot that hopped over Miller at 17:07 to make the score 3-2, McKee goal made him the eighth Sabre to record a game-winning goal during the playoffs.
"Jay has done a tremendous job for our club in the penalty killing department and he's blocked a ton of shots," said Lindy Ruff. "You really like to see a player like that get a goal like that because it doesn't happen a lot."
"It was a big goal by Jay after they were buzzing around in our zone for a little bit," Drury said. "Two goals by our defense is huge."
Although he has never been mistaken as an offensive defenseman, the Kingston, Ontario native has been known to shine under pressure. In Game Two of Buffalo's first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2001 playoffs, McKee beat Roman Cechmanek with a wristshot to give Buffalo the 4-3 overtime victory and 2-0 lead in the series.
"I had visions of that overtime game in Philadelphia," said Ruff of his thoughts when McKee scored. "That's a treat for any one of our defensemen. To be able to step up and score a goal like that ... it was well deserved."
Tallinder - another defenseman - opened the scoring for Buffalo after crashing the net on a three-on-two rush. Trailing the rush, Tallinder one-timed Jason Pominville
's attempt to stuff the puck inside the right post over Cam Ward's right pad to give Buffalo the 1-0 lead 2:56 into the first.
"They came out really hard from the get go," said Tallinder, whose has now recorded the first goal in 11 of its last 14 playoff games. "We knew that was going to happen and just battled through it."
A turnover by Rory Fitzpatrick with less than eight minutes left in the first left Rod Brind'Amour wide open on the left wing, where the Hurricane's captain snapped a wristshot into the top-right corner of the net to tie the game.
Daniel Briere scored a highlight reel goal to give Buffalo the 2-1 lead. Breaking into Carolina's zone after receiving a quick pass from Jason Pominville
at the Hurricanes' blueline, Briere roofed a backhander into the only open spot on the net - just inside the crossbar - for his fifth goal of the postseason at 9:41 of the second.
"I'll steal Rick Jeanneret's line," joked Ruff referring to the goal. "That was topshelf where mama hides the cookies. There are a lot of players that wouldn't hit that spot, but Daniel has a way of finding the openings."
Injuries continue to pile-up on Buffalo's lineup as Teppo Numminen did not return from the first intermission and joins Tim Connolly as day-to-day. Numminen's ailment is a lower-body injury. Defenseman Dmitri Kalinin is week-to-week also with a lower-body injury.
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Quotes courtesy of WGR 550-AM, the official radio partner of the Buffalo Sabres.