It is only fitting that the Eastern Conference will come down to the two best teams. Even better, it is two teams that really, for all intensive purposes, hate each other. The Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators rivalry has grown leaps and bounds in the past 12 months. First it was Buffalo knocking off the number 1 seeded Sens last post-season in 5 games, capped off by Jason Pominville's shorthanded overtime winner in Game 5. Then you fast forward to February 22, when a hit (late or not, you decide) from Sens tough guy Chris Neil knocked out Sabres co-captain Chris Drury for 6 games, and inciting a brawl that ended with one enforcer fighting a goalie and Lindy Ruff and Bryan Murray nearly going to blows between the benches.
Yeah, so a boring series this will not be. This has all the makings of an epic battle.
Forwards: The Sabres seemed to finally get the offense rolling again the past few games with the Rangers. Granted, they only scored one goal in Game 4, and 2 in Game 5, the effort was noticeably better. IN Game 6, with new line combinations, the Sabres were finally able to break the impenetrable force of Henrik Lundqvist for 5 goals in Game 6.
The new line of Daniel Briere-Tim Connolly and Ales Kotalik gives the Sabres two very good playmakers, along with a big forward in Kotalik who possesses one of the games best shots. All 4 of the Sabres lines have a 30 goal scorer on them. Daniel Briere on the top line, 40 goal scorer Thomas Vanek with Derek Roy and Game 5 hero Maxim Afinogeov. The Sabres checking line consists of Chris Drury with big Danius Zubrus and Jochen Hecht, while the "4th line" consists of the returning Paul Gaustad with Adam Mair and 30 goal scorer Jason Pominville.
For the Sens, they will rely on the big line of Daniel Alfreddson, Jason Spezza and Dany Healtey to provide the bulk of the offense. All 3 are in the top 5 in playoff scoring, Heatley leads the team with 15 points. Other lines include a strong second line of Peter Schaeffer, Mike Fisher and Mike Comrie. The third line has a good combination of speed and grit with Antoine Vermette, Chris Kelly and Chris Neil. The 4th line consists of Oleg Saprykin, Dean McAmmond and Christoph Schubert. Forward Patrick Eaves is out with a concussion and may not return this postseason.
As far as matchups go, look for Buffalo to use the Drury-Zubrus-Hecht line to counter the Heatley line for most of the series, similar to how they matched up with Jaromir Jagr and his line against the Rangers. besides that, Buffalo will likely just roll the normal 4 lines and take advantage of possible mismatches between the Sens 3rd and 4th lines and Buffalo's 3/4 lines.
As for Ottawa, I can expect you will see a good dose of Chris Kelly against the Daniel Briere line, and possibly even the Healtey line against them as well, especially when the series heads to Ottawa and Murray gets the last change.
edge: While Ottawas top line may be more dynamic based on numbers, Buffalos scoring is much more spread out. Look for the 3rd and 4th lines to get favorable matchups when the Sens try and contain the Briere line or the RAV line. Buffalo will focus hard on the Healtey line, but their second line can also produce. Edge goes to the Sabres.
Defense: The Sabres have been suprisingly strong on their backend this postseason, only allowing 13 goals in 6 games against the Rangers and not allowing more then 4 goals through the entire playoffs. The top pairing of Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman had problems at times with Jaromir Jagr, but did hold him in check for long stretches of the series. Brian Campbell and Jaro Spacek are the Sabres best offensive producing tandem, both like to jump into the play when possible, while Spacek possesses a laser from the point. Dmitri Kalinin leads all Sabres defenseman in scoring in the postseason, and plays on the third pairing with ageless wonder Teppo Numminen.
For the Sens, Chris Phillips and Wade Redden offer a very good mix of size and scoring to the Sens blue line. Andrei Meszaros has emerged as a top two-way defenseman, while Anton Volchenkov led the league in block shots this past season. Tom Preissing and Joe Corvo round out the pairings, while 7th defenseman Christoph Schubert doubles as a forward when not needed.
Matchup: Both teams have a shut down pairing that will likely see a healthy dose of the opponents top lines. Lydman and Tallinder will likely be on for most, if not all, of the Heatley lines shifts, even if Ruff does not match the Drury line against them. The Sens will likely have Volchenkov and Phillips against the Briere line, but also expect Redden and Meszaros to see them as well at times. They could likely see the Vanek line. Buffalo will use their other pairings at will, not trying to go for specific matchups.
Summary: Both teams line up pretty evenly on the blue line. Ottawas will be more physical, but Buffalos will look to create more offense. Advantage: Even
Goaltending: This matchup has the makeup of being an epic battle. Both Ryan Miller and Ray Emery have been spectacular in the postseason, Miller with a 8-3 record with a GAA of 2.07, while Ray Emery with a 8-2 record and a GAA of 2.04.
Miller is the more playoff tested, going through last seasons run. He could be considered the biggest reason the Sabres were able to beat the Rangers after his solid performances in Games 3,4, and 5. Emery was big, styming the Devils. If Emery has a weakness, it could be his rebound control. The Devils scored off those rebounds, but let many out there that could have been opportunities. Buffalo will not miss those chances if they present themselves. Miller will need to limit the "bad goals", specifically ones off screens. He was beaten for a few in the Rangers series.
Edge: This could be the biggest key in who wins the series. Two good offenses will shoot and skate at will, but which goalie will hold the best under pressure? Miller has the expierence edge, and is best in high pressure games. Emery is a shade below. Edge: Buffalo
Ottawa has a very good PP going into this round, 2nd in the league at 22.7%, just below the Rangers. Daniel Alfreddson leads the Sens with 3 PPG. Buffalo is 8th in the playoffs with the man advantage, ranking at 15.2%. Chris Drury also has 3 powerplay goals, while Brian Campbell and Daniel Briere have 2 each. Buffalo's PP has struggled at times, but has looked much better the past 2 games, moving the puck well and getting it to the net a lot more.
Penalty Killing has been a struggle most of the year for the Sabres and nearly bit them in the behind in Game 6 against the Rangers, giving up 3 powerplay goals on 4 chances. Ottawa is currently 7th in PK percentage
edge: Buffalo will need to be a lot better in both areas to win this series. the PK must limit the Sens chances, and staying out of the box will be a must. Ottawa can sometimes take unneccessary penalties, and the Sabres must capitalize on those chances. But edge goes to Ottawa.
Outlook: These two teams are about as even as they can be. Both teams love to skate and score at will and will play a free flowing style. Special teams and the Goaltending will be the keys to the series for both teams. Look to see a lot of hitting and scoring with several 4 or 5 goal games, if not more. A 7-6 epic like game 1 of last season could be in store again.
Prediction: It will be tough, but Buffalo has the expierence to draw back on when in trouble. Look for the balanced scoring to carry them through. Buffalo in 6.