As my buddy Toastie recently joked, looks like the Sabres' path to the Stanley Cup is going to have to go through New York State.
Now that they have dispatched of the Islanders and the Rangers, it appears that the Slugs have tightened their hold on the title of Best Team in the State. Now, it's on to Ottawa to see if they can retain the crown for the East. Perhaps later they can lay claim to the rest of North America. Game 6 was a tough one, but they showed a lot of guts in holding on at the end.
I am bothered by a couple of things in the wake of this series, three things in particular.
1) You could practially see the dollar signs in the eyes of the broadcasters for NBC, with the delicious prospect of having the legendary New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals. Oh what an unbelievable ratings boost this would be! Forget the fact that the general public doesn't give a crap about the Rangers (like they might care about the Yankees or even the Knicks). The storyline was all about the Rangers, how gritty they were, how venerable a venue Madison Square Garden is, and how much heart they have.
Why wouldn't NBC do the smart thing in their advertising and highlight the tough-guy physicality of the Rangers matching up against the speed and finesse of the Sabres. The Sabres have been the most exciting and TV-friendly team in the NHL this year (even if not in this particular series), yet you would think that the NBC announcers were the Rangers' own play-by-play guys.
Anyone who has been following hockey this year can tell you that Ottawa-Buffalo is THE best matchup in the Eastern Conference for a playoff series, and possibly in the entire league. There will be scoring, great goaltending and LOTS of fights in this series. Plus, it's a serious grudge match. No one outside of the 212 area code gives a shit about the Rangers, NBC!
2) I was really bothered by the lack of respect that the Rangers (and their media-sycophants at MSG) gave to the Sabres after this series. Not only did Jaromir Jagr say that the Rangers "gave the game away" -- as opposed to the Sabres being opportunistic and more talented -- but all the news coverage after the game was about how gritty and tough the Rangers were, and how they were sooo close to winning the series. Um, it was a six-game series! And Jagr said that he didn't think the Sabres were a better team than the Rangers. Jaromir, my friend, did you forget that the Sabres won the President's Trophy, and the Rangers were a #6 seed? The Rangers showed a lot of toughness in games three and four, and as much as they blew it on Drury's goal with 7 seconds left in game five, they were lucky to get away with one in game four in a goal by Daniel Briere that sure looked like a goal to me. So with all the bad calls that went the Rangers way, there was a lot that went against the Sabres too.
3) The Rangers played dirty and the national media never picked up on it. There were a ton of non-calls where Rangers mugged the Sabres and not a word was said. That loudmouth Sean Avery, for example, got away with a huge hooking call in game six, and no announcers said a word. Instead, all we here about is how brilliant Henrik Lundqvist is (which, by the way, he really was, much respect to Henrik).
So next up is the Ottawa Senators...
They are the only team in the league that scares the living shit out of me. They are a mirror image of the Sabres, but bigger. They have three scoring lines -- including the dreaded Daniel Alfredsson-Jason Spezza-Dany Heatley line -- and goalie Ray Emery is playing out of his mind. He outplayed Martin Brodeur in the previous round, and Brodeur had the best year of any goalie in the league.
Buffalo needs to do a few things:
1) Score first. This team plays much better with a lead than when playing catch-up. Chris Drury isn't going to be able to score with 7 seconds left in every game, and the Sens have a history of playoff frustration. If they can play off of that, they could have an early advantage. Get 'em scared and panicked early.
2) Kill those damn penalties. The Rangers' power play was way too effective for my liking, and they don't have half the scoring ability of Ottawa. They need to really scale back the stupid penalties (especially for dumb things like interference and delay of game). If Ottawa gets enough chances, they will murder you on the power play. And part of that penalty killing leads to ...
3) Play physical. The Sabres had trouble matching up with a power team, now they will have to match up with another finesse team, but one that has been playing very physically in the playoffs. I say Game One, knock them all over the ice. Make them clean hits (see #2) but make them pay for coming into the Buffalo zone. They have to play with a chip on their shoulder. They're still the Senators, for pete's sake.
4) Stay composed. It's going to be tempting to get into scuffles for revenge over this little incident in February (click on it, it's awesome), but they have to keep it clean. There is serious bad blood between these two teams, but don't let it turn into a 1985 St. Louis Cardinals-style meltdown. You stay classy, Banana Slugs.
5) Attack! Attack! Attack! The reason Buffalo lost game four was that they played on their heels all night. They were passive, trying not to lose rather than to win. They had no energy, no enthusiasm. They were completely outplayed. After the Rangers scored their second goal late in the third period, Buffalo finally got desperate, and turned on the jets. Not surprisingly, they scored quickly, and then seemingly scored again with less than 20 seconds remaining (but the goal wasn't allowed). When they are on their game, they can overwhelm any defense in the league, and when they are sniping shots continuously, a few of them are bound to go in. I say keep pressing, and put Ray Emery right in the crosshairs. He's not as good as the Sabres' Ryan Miller, so he can be lit up. Hell, after Lundqvist I'm guessing almost any goalie in the league will be an easier target.
This is free advice, babies. Take it and let's win this thing in four. Fine, I'll be happy with six.