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Ruff and ready

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You've got to hand it to these NHL playoffs. Even the worst of games has a way of coming back and grabbing your attention at the end.

Just as Anaheim did a night before, Carolina rallied from three goals down to make a game of it against Buffalo in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. What looked to be a snoozer when Cam Ward skated to the bench after allowing his fourth goal turned into some riveting television as the Hurricanes nearly tied it with a flurry of chances in the final seconds of their 4-3 loss on Wednesday.

It didn't start out that way. Tuesday's war of words over diving spilled over to the ice on Wednesday. The teams combined for nine minor penalties, one a questionable diving call, in a first period that never developed any continuity.

Then the Sabres put it all together and played a nearly flawless second period. They outshot Carolina 19-8, finished their checks – and there were lots of them – and scored three times to take a 4-1 lead before a Cory Stillman goal shaved their advantage by one.

Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff called it his team's best 20 minutes of hockey of the season and it's hard to argue with him. That period was the Sabres at their best – deep, fast and physical.

Give the Hurricanes credit for crawling back into the game. Martin Gerber steadied the ship and Eric Staal ratcheted up the offensive pressure with five shots and his sixth goal of the playoffs. Carolina was only credited with one shot in the waning seconds after pulling Gerber for an extra skater, but the Hurricanes sure made it interesting.

THIRD STAR OF THE DAY

How long does is take to stir up a playoff goalie controversy? Right around 25 minutes, it appears. Normally one-plus periods of mop-up goaltending doesn't amount to much, but this wasn't your typical relief effort. Gerber stepped in for Ward after Buffalo's fourth goal late in the second period. Less than a minute later, he stopped Mike Grier on a breakaway. So much for easing into the game. The next shot he faced was also on a breakaway. Gerber only faced seven shots, but they were big stops as Carolina inched back into the game. Ward deserves to start Game 4, but after the loss, coach Peter Laviolette wouldn't commit to a goalie for Friday.

SECOND STAR OF THE DAY

A defenseman's dream shift led to Buffalo's fourth goal, the eventual game-winner. First Toni Lydman laid out Carolina defenseman Mike Commodore (disrobed him, really). Lydman stole the puck and drew a delayed penalty as Commodore grabbed his stick. Lydman won that battle, recovered control of his stick and fed the puck to Maxim Afinogenov, who then hit Ales Kotalik for a one-timer that beat Ward. Lydman finished the night with three hits, four blocked shots and that key assist.

FIRST STAR OF THE DAY

After Buffalo's Game 2 loss, Ruff made a point of calling out his top line. Daniel Briere, Jochen Hecht and J.P. Dumont combined for just two shots and two points Monday and the Sabres' first 40 minutes were among their worst of the season. What a difference a day off and a fire under the britches makes. Briere scored twice in the second period Wednesday, the first goal coming on a power-play rebound and the second on a partial breakaway. That's the kind of energy this team needs from Briere and his linemates every night.

MINOR PENALTY

Penalty trouble nearly buried Carolina in Game 2 when three third-period minor penalties led to two power-play goals for the Sabres. If a lesson was learned, it didn't show up in Wednesday's scoresheet. The Hurricanes took seven minor penalties in the first 30-plus minutes and Buffalo scored its first two goals with a man advantage. It's no coincidence that Carolina played its best period, holding an 11-4 shot advantage, during a penalty-free third period.

MAJOR PENALTY

Carolina committed 18 giveaways to Buffalo's 10. Certainly some of those misplays were a result of the 24 hits Buffalo dished out, but some of the turnovers were avoidable. Commodore's decision to try to carry the puck out of Carolina's zone was a costly one.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR THURSDAY

Game 4: Anaheim Mighty Ducks at Edmonton Oilers: – Who will start in goal for Anaheim? A few weeks ago Ducks goalie Ilya Bryzgalov was on the verge of rewriting the postseason record books. Thursday he may be a spectator in what could be the team's final game of the season. Bryzgalov allowed five goals in Tuesday's Game 3 loss, and while he wasn't pulled, coach Randy Carlyle indicated he may go with Jean-Sebastien Giguere.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE NIGHT Watch

Maybe the most physical highlight reel of the playoffs. Lydman's hit was crucial, but Paul Gaustad and Jeff Jillson also lowered the boom in the second period.

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