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Buffalo vs. Ottawa: MOP Squad On the NHL's Final Four
By BRIAN PIKE, MOP Squad Sports Hockey Editor
May 10, 2007 - 4:38:36 PM

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Buffalo Sabres (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (4): Eastern Conference Finals

The Goods: After defeating both New York teams in the first two rounds, the Sabres will finally be forced to leave their own state this round. Buffalo finally started to look like the cream of the NHL again late in their series versus the Rangers. Every skater on the Sabre team got at least a point in the second round except winger Dan Paille, who only played one game, and Jaroslav Spacek, who has averaged the least ice time of all the team’s defensemen. As a team the Sabres have survived a couple of scares late in the first round against the Islanders, who nearly came back in game five, and in the middle of the second against the Rangers, who won games three and four in New York and would’ve won game five if not for some late-game heroics from Chris Drury, but have managed to pull through with some timely scoring and solid goaltending. Two things that haven’t worked all that well for them are their special teams. Their power play is middle of the pack at 15.3%, not nearly as effective as the Ranger power play was, and the penalty kill is 12th in the playoffs at 79.6%, by far the worst mark of the four remaining teams. To put that percentage in further perspective, only four teams in the regular season had a worse mark than 79.6%, and none of them made the playoffs. In last year’s playoffs the team’s special teams play was a huge reason why they got to the third round; this year they’ve gotten this far in spite of it. The Senators, meanwhile, have a middle-of-the-road penalty kill at 86%, good for 8th in the postseason, but their power play has been great at 22.7%, second best next to the Rangers. Ottawa got by Pittsburgh in the first round with balanced scoring and superior defense; they got by New Jersey with better goaltending and first-line firepower. Ottawa is the highest scoring team in the playoffs and are tied with the Red Wings for the biggest difference between goals for and against. Ottawa has probably been the most impressive team so far in these playoffs. After bowing out to Buffalo in the second round last year in a postseason where they entered as one of the Stanley Cup favourites, Ottawa has really looked in control of their first two series against difficult opponents. While neither Pittsburgh nor New Jersey can boast the firepower of the Sabres, the fact that Ottawa was able to dispatch them with relative ease looks good on a team that’s suffered through a lot of playoff disappointments in the past.

Heroes: It’ll be tough to pick a Conn Smythe winner if the Sabres win the Cup, but centre Chris Drury has made a strong case for himself. Drury leads the team with seven goals, and more importantly they’ve been very timely goals, none moreso than his game-tying marker in game five against the Rangers that really turned the series in the Sabres’ favour. Goaltender Ryan Miller has been very good too, even though his numbers aren’t quite as gaudy as those of Western finalist goalies Dominik Hasek and Jean-Sebastian Giguere; he’s been solid throughout, and even spectacular at times. He looks like a goaltender on a championship team. And while his offensive contributions have been minor, with two assists in 11 games, defenseman Henrik Tallinder has been huge for the Sabres. His broken arm in the third round last year was a major loss and one of the big reasons the team lost to Carolina; this year he’s been extremely solid playing against the opposition’s best with defense partner Toni Lydman. For the Senators, the whole first line of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson are their best candidates for playoff MVP. Heatley is leading the team in points with 14 and Spezza is second with 12, but it’s team captain Alfredsson who’s really been leading the way. While the most enduring image of the Sens losing last year was Sabres winger Jason Pominville going right around Alfredsson while shorthanded to score an overtime winner, this season Alfredsson has played brilliantly, not just scoring points on the power play and at even strength, but really leading with gritty play and defense too. Goaltender Ray Emery has made some big saves as well; he faced Martin Brodeur, one of the game’s best, across the ice in the second round and didn’t even blink, outplaying him the whole way.

Goats: After playing so well on Edmonton’s top pair in last season’s playoffs with Chris Pronger, defenseman Jaroslav Spacek signed a big free agent deal with the Sabres in the summer and has been a bit disappointing, averaging the fewest minutes among the team’s defensemen and not scoring any points. After playing so well in last year’s playoffs centre Derek Roy had just one point against the Rangers despite over 18 minutes of ice time a game, fifth among team forwards. The Sabres need him to be better. Jochen Hecht was great in game six against New York, scoring twice and flying all over the ice. Unfortunately, those two goals were Hecht’s first two of the playoffs; if the Hecht of game six shows up the Sabres are in good shape. If the one who had just one assist in his previous ten games shows up the Sabres could be in trouble. In Ottawa, the Senators have simply not gotten the kind of goal support they expected from their second and third lines. Their first line carried their offense against New Jersey, but to get by Buffalo they need Mike Comrie (just one assist against the Devils), Peter Schaefer (no points against New Jersey), Chris Kelly (three goals against Pittsburgh, no points against New Jersey), and Chris Neil (three points against Pittsburgh, none against New Jersey) to contribute on the scoreboard.

The Key: Goals from the blueline. Neither of these teams has a star defenseman who’s going to lead his team in scoring like Anaheim’s Chris Pronger or Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom. The closest thing to that is Wade Redden on the Ottawa D. Both team’s haven’t gotten this far relying on heavy production from their defense; both team’s d-men have a combined six goals. Ottawa got a crucial goal in the second round from Tom Preissing that was a real momentum shift in the series, and Wade Redden really picked up his game against the Devils after a mediocre first round. Buffalo, meanwhile, has gotten good power play production from Brian Campbell all playoffs and Dmitri Kalinin scored the first Buffalo goal in game six against New York. The defense hasn’t scored a lot but has gotten some important goals and was better than the defense of the teams they played in the second round; New Jersey got just one goal from the D against Ottawa, while the Rangers had three against Buffalo but only one at even strength. At this point of the playoffs goals from the defense are real back-breakers. Simply put, goals aren’t supposed to go in from the blueline right now, not on goalies that’ve made it to round three. But sometimes they do, and they’re deflating for the goaltender that allows them and his whole team. Look for the team that gets the most production from its D to win this series.

Buffalo Wins If: They can use their superior scoring depth to its fullest advantage. At this point Buffalo doesn’t have a line that’s rolling the same way that Spezza-Heatley-Alfredsson are, and might not have quite the same level of talent on their first line that the Sens do on theirs. However, while that talent level may be just a shade less, the talent level on their third line is just a shade less than that of Ottawa’s first line too, and it’s significantly higher than the talent level on Buffalo’s third line. And while Roy wasn’t great against the Rangers, Tomas Vanek was up and down, and Maxim Afinogenov was a healthy scratch in game four, they have the ability to make a huge difference in any given game, as evidenced by Afinogenov scoring the game-winning goal in game five. The unprecedented scoring depth the Sabres had is what gave them the best offense in the league during the regular season; its their biggest single advantage against any team, and if they can bring it to bear against the Sens, who haven’t gotten as many goals from their second or third lines as they’d have liked, it’ll be their biggest advantage here too.

Ottawa Wins If: Ray Emery has another level to his game that he can reach. Make no mistake, Emery’s been very good in these playoffs so far. But as good as he’s been, neither the Penguins nor the Devils have the kind of firepower the Sabres do, and while he’s out-duelled both his counterparts during the first two rounds, Marc-Andre Fleury had no playoff experience and Martin Brodeur was clearly fatigued and gave up some very questionable goals. Ryan Miller, his opposite number in this series, has both playoff experience from last year’s run and a solid performance from the last two rounds behind him. Buffalo will be Emery’s greatest challenge. At 24 years of age Emery has 20 games of playoff experience, half of them coming this season, and while he has been good, he hasn’t really had to lift the team on his shoulders and carried them. But if the Senators are going to beat Buffalo he’s going to have to do so in at least one game. Now, there’s nothing saying he doesn’t have that next level, that ability the greats had to be unbeatable when their team needed them to be, to somehow refuse to give up the next goal, seemingly through sheer force of will. But on the other hand, there’s been nothing so far to indicate he has that next level either. He’s done a good job not losing any games for his team so far; against the Sabres he has to go to the next level and win at least one game for them, or they won’t advance.

Bottom Line: I’m tempted to go with the Senators by virtue of their superior special teams play in the playoffs so far. But the Rangers had better special teams than the Sabres too, and it didn’t seem to make a lot of difference. This one will be close, and neither of these teams has had to face the challenge that’s awaiting them in this round. It’ll be close, but let’s take the Sabres in seven.

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