No. 3 Buffalo Sabres vs. No. 6 Boston Bruins
Storyline: Riding Ryan Miller in, the Sabres look poised as the top dog in the Northeast, and unless the low-scoring Bruins can prove otherwise, Buffalo could keep up their sleeper presence.
Offense: In the past five years, the Buffalo Sabres were notorious for scoring goals and peppering goaltenders with a barrage of offense that was sometimes an insurmountable climb.
Head Coach Lindy Ruff changed that formula early on for the Sabres, who were a much quieter offensive team despite great success in the long run. Buffalo experienced intermittent power failures from previous aces like Thomas Vanek while other players, like Tim Connolly and Jochen Hecht, thrived in the new dynamic.
Derek Roy was instrumental as a quiet leader in points and game winners. If Connolly and Vanek (among others) can stay healthy just long enough, the Sabres offense can be as potent as it ever was.
Boston, meanwhile, thrashed about wildly as the Eastern Conference’s lowest scoring team. Losing both Phil Kessel (via trade) and Marc Savard (via several injured reserve vacations) contributed to the overall woes of a team that was on top of the East just one year previous. When talking about Bruins scorers, one must first mention Marco Sturm’s team-leading 22 goals as something of a highlight amidst several dimmer bulbs.
Patrice Bergeron still hasn’t returned to form but is certainly on the right track, and lately, Michael Ryder has come on strong with something to prove. Still, this team finds it difficult to eclipse the two-goal mark on most nights in any arena. Advantage: Buffalo.
Defense: Few pundits can disagree with Tyler Myers’ Calder Trophy chances for the Buffalo Sabres. The monstrous Myers has single-handedly reversed the fortunes of a Buffalo defense short on motivation and ability.
Myers, however, can’t do it all by himself, which is why journeyman like Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman seem ever ready to step it up for the Buffalo corps. Though it isn’t star-studded, the Sabres’ defense gets the job done and only looks flawed when it is forced to scramble.
The Boston defense, on paper, is one of the best amongst the 16 teams entering the playoffs. However, half of that starting six is currently sidelined for one injury or another, putting the pressure on an even more monstrous Zdeno Chara and a pack of young, mostly inexperienced d-men like Johnny Boychuk to keep the pressure off the net minders.
If Boston has any chance in this series, it’ll come from returns on the blueline like deadline day acquisition Dennis Seidenberg. Assuming two-thirds of Boston’s injured trio can make it back in time, they might just avert disaster. Advantage: Push.
Goaltending: Even fair-weather hockey fans know the name Ryan Miller after the 2010 Winter Olympics. Fact of the matter is, Miller was playing this invincibly the entire season and is a shoe-in for the Vezina Trophy.
His numbers are statistically the best all-around he’s ever produced, and in big game situations he has recently shown a knack to excel. The last time Miller won 40 games in the regular season, the Sabres punched a ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Speaking of Vezina trophies, it would appear as if the ship has sailed on last year’s winner, Tim Thomas in the Boston fold. After inking a long-term deal with a no-trade clause, Thomas fumbled the starting duties into the hands of Boston prospect Tuukka Rask, who showed flashes of brilliance in limited work over the past two seasons.
Though starting duties were split nearly evenly the entire year, Rask is expected to carry the load into the playoffs, having posted a league-best 1.97 goals against average with 22 wins to Thomas’ 16. Of course, Rask will also be getting his first taste of playoff hockey, a stigma few goalies have the ability to break free of in their first campaign. Advantage: Buffalo.
Key Players: A Clash of the Titans? Zdeno Chara finished with 1goal and 6 assists in 6 games against the Sabres this season. Tyler Myers had 2 goals and 3 assists over the same period.
History: This will be the sixth playoff meeting between these division rivals, with the Bruins currently holding a 3-2 series lead. Boston also won the season series 4-2.
Outcome: What will likely be the least-covered Eastern series due to its lack of star power could turn out to be the most entertaining and back and forth. Sabres in 7.