Buffalo Sabres (1) vs. New York Islanders (8): Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
The Goods: In a lot of ways Buffalo was the premier team in the league throughout the regular season. They entered the year on many people’s list as the top Cup contender in the East, and did little to discourage that label, winning the President’s Trophy for the most points in the league. Centre Daniel Briere was top ten in the league with 95 points. Goaltender Ryan Miller was tied for third in the league with 40 wins. Sophomore winger Thomas Vanek was a revelation after being a healthy scratch at times in last year’s playoffs, tying for fifth in the league in goals with 43 and finishing first overall with a plus-47 rating. The list goes on and on. The Islanders, meanwhile, barely made the playoffs on the last day of the season, beating the Devils in a shootout that left them one point clear of Toronto and two up on Montreal. This was despite a concussion that sidelined starting goaltender Rick DiPietro for the last seven games of the season and a meltdown by backup Mike Dunham that left the Islanders in the hands of 28-year-old third string goalie Wade Dubielewicz. Up front, the Islanders had six guys score 20 goals or more, including Ryan Smyth, who came over from Edmonton at the trade deadline and scored 36, though just five were in his 18 games as an Islander, and Jason Blake, who shattered his previous career high of 28 by scoring 40. Despite their great record, both Buffalo’s special teams were mediocre, as they finished 17th on the power play and 20th on the penalty kill. The Islanders finished higher; they were 12th on both the power play and penalty kill.
Game One: Because of time constraints, this preview could not be completed before game one on Thursday. Your esteemed hockey editor apologizes for his tardiness. Buffalo took game one 4-1 on the strength of two goals apiece from Chris Drury and Brian Campbell, who also added an assist, and three assists from deadline-day addition Dainius Zubrus. Frustration on the part of the Islanders showed in a minor dust-up at the end of the game, with Blake, Smyth, and Brendan Witt all getting involved in late scrums, the latter two with less than a minute left. Smyth was also thwarted on a breakaway by a great diving play by Sabres defenseman Dmitri Kalinin, who was able to dive and hook Smyth’s stick, allowing Miller to poke the puck harmlessly away. The Sabres carried the play for most of the game and Dubielewicz faced 35 shots. Comparatively, Miller saw just 21. Buffalo scored two goals on six power play attempts, while the Islanders were 0-for-3.
The Key: Defensive production. Neither of these two teams can ice the kind of defenseman that, say, Anaheim or Detroit can with Pronger, Niedermayer and Lidstrom. They just don’t have the personnel. But both teams have defensemen who can move the puck and play well on the power play, and the team that gets the most production out of their blueline will have the best shot at the series. This was evident in game one, when Buffalo got three points out of Campbell and one from Numminen. On the Islanders blueline, Tom Poti and Marc-Andre Bergeron played upwards of 26 minutes apiece but couldn’t find the scoresheet, and the rest of the D was pointless as well. The team got great production out of Bergeron late in the season after his trade from the Oilers; he had 21 points in 23 Islander games. But Bergeron was, at times, badly overmatched during the Oilers run to the Cup final last year, too small to handle a lot of the big forwards and unable to consistently make intelligent decisions with the puck. Poti, meanwhile, had a career-high 38 assists and 44 points this year on the Island; he was particularly good on the power play, with 32 of his points coming with the Isles a man up. But despite being 6’3 and 210 pounds, four inches and almost 15 pounds heavier than Bergeron, he also has trouble with big, physical forwards, and can also be guilty of bad decisions in his own zone. These two will be key for the Islanders, with support coming from veterans Brendan Witt and Sean Hill on the second pairing and youngsters Chris Campoli and Bruno Gervais on the third, but Poti and Bergeron must produce. On the other side, not a single Sabres defenseman had more than Dmitri Kalinin’s seven goals during the season. Campbell’s two in the opener were a third of the number he had all season. Without a top-end offensive defenseman, or a hard-nosed defensive guy like, oh, say Jay McKee, who was let go by the Sabres as a free agent in the summer, the Sabres have a lot of guys somewhere in between those two ideals, and they need all of them to play well, to be more than the sum of their parts, to win games.
Buffalo Wins If: All goes according to plan, really. Buffalo is the heavy favourites in this series, and for good reason. All four of their forward lines can score. All six of their defensemen can move the puck well. Ryan Miller is rapidly becoming one of the best goaltenders in the league. They have the experience that last season’s run to the third round has given them, and more than likely learned something from that loss to Carolina in seven games. Their collective skill level is maybe the highest in the league, but their top players are also their leaders in Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. They’ve got talented youth in Vanek, Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford and Derek Roy but experience and wisdom in Drury, Numminen, Jaroslav Spacek and Tony Lydman. Buffalo doesn’t have to do anything special to win; just continue to play the game the way they have all season long, rolling their lines and getting contributions from everyone under coach Lindy Ruff, and they’ll prevail.
New York Wins If: They can change the complexion of this series and change it to a more low-scoring affair. The Islanders are one of the few teams in the league who do have enough weapons up front to come close to the Sabres, what with their six 20-goal scorers, and that’s not including Alexei Yashin, who had 18 but may be the team’s most talented player. But if this becomes a run-and-gun series, the Sabres still win. The Islanders need to find a way to grind out wins against a more talented team, to keep the games close enough that a lucky bounce for a Smyth or a Blake can maybe get them a victory, and for that to happen they can’t let the whole series be like game one, where the skating was fierce and the rushes went back-and-forth at times but the Sabres still carried the play. In last year’s playoffs the Sabres scored seven or more goals three times in the first two rounds, but against Carolina five of seven games were decided by just one goal. Those are the kind of wins the Islanders will need if they’re going to compete in this series.
Bottom Line: Buffalo is just too strong. I haven’t picked a sweep in any of my other series previews but I’m taking one here. The rumour is that Rick DiPietro will come back and replace Wade Dubielewicz in game two, but it’s not like goaltending was the problem for the Islanders in game one. Buffalo in four straight.