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Conference Quarterfinals Preview
April 13, 2010 - Matt Spielman
The Sabres are playing some pretty good hockey as they limp into an Eastern Conference Quarterfinals matchup with the Bruins.
Tim Connolly, Jochen Hecht and Drew Stafford are all at least saying they are healthy enough to play Game 1, but whether they actually are remains to be seen. Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe should remain in the lineup no matter who comes back from the injured list. If Matt Ellis and Adam Mair have to sit in the press box to make this happen, so be it. Boston is going to hunker down defensively and hope to win games 1-0, 2-1, etc. Buffalo is going to need as much offense as it can muster to beat the Bruins.
Ryan Miller is undoubtedly the Sabres MVP, but in no way is he the most important player in this series. Buffalo can win or lose this series with or without Miller in net. Patrick Lalime could even win this series if the Sabres supporting cast plays well enough. The same can't be said about Boston. Tuukka Rask has to at least be the Bruins' second-best player, if not their top performer. Zdeno Chara also has to play better than he has in past playoff series. Without Marc Savard, Boston is severely lacking offensively. Look for the Bruins to play a lot of dump-and-chase high-pressure hockey hoping for the Sabres defense to turn the puck over. When Buffalo gets a penalty, Boston is going to have to capitalize on the power play to win the series. Miroslav Satan and Milan Lucic have to play above their regular-season productions while the Bruins are also going to need significant contributions from their blue-liners.
Thomas Vanek's five goals in the Sabres' last two games bodes well for the offense. If Derek Roy can stay hot and Tim Connolly can start clicking with Jason Pominville like they did just after the New Year, Buffalo can come close to rolling four threatening lines like it did in its last two playoff years. But if Chara and his defense partner can team up with a lockdown forward line to keep Roy and Vanek off the board, the Sabres could be in trouble. At HSBC Arena, with the last line change, Lindy Ruff is going to have to get a hitting line like Gaustad, Kaleta and Grier on the ice to dump the puck in on Chara and the rest of the Boston defensemen. A couple of hits will wear down the Bruins on the back end and in turn weaken their offensive output.
This series could feature multiple overtime games and I think that is where Miller can make a difference. My pick is the Sabres in five games with every matchup a one-goal game (without empty-net goals).
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In the rest of the Eastern Conference I see the Capitals sweeping the Canadiens, with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin and Green being too much for a battered Monteal defense corps. Pittsburgh's last two playoff runs and drive to repeat should be enough for it to beat Ottawa in six games. I see New Jersey having trouble putting away Philadelphia, going seven games before knocking out the Flyers and advancing to the second round.
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Out West it looks like San Jose got lucky and might actually get out of the first round this year with Colorado playing its worst hockey of the year. Craig Anderson started the season hot but has trailed off and I think the Sharks should advance in five games. Goaltending could be a problem later in the playoffs for Chicago, but I don't see Nashville providing enough offense to knock off the Blackhawks in this round. South Buffalo's Patrick Kane will lead Chicago to a 4-2 series win. The Kings have a good chance for a first-round upset, especially if the Canucks defense doesn't get healthy fast. Jonathan Quick will backstop Los Angeles to that upset in seven games. I think the Red Wings got things turned around in plenty of time and despite a worse seed than the Coyotes, I think Phoenix's story-book season will come to an end in a 4-1 series defeat to Detroit.
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Ryan Miller hopes to backstop the Sabres to a long playoff run. AP photo