PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference semifinals; Game 1.
The Northeast Division rivals open their Eastern Conference semifinal series at Scotiabank Place with the Senators hosting the Sabres.
Just as the team did in 2001 when it last made the playoffs, Buffalo reached the second round by eliminating Philadelphia in six games. Lindy Ruff successfully rolled four lines of forwards as the quicker Sabres outskated and outworked the slower, plodding Flyers, capped by a 7-1 rout Tuesday.
Taylor Pyatt was the only Sabres skater not to register a point in the series, underlining the depth of a team that had 11 players reach 40 points during the regular season. While that balance should allow Buffalo to challenge Ottawa, Ruff knows his team faces a very difficult challenge.
The Senators finished three points ahead of the Sabres for the division title, in part because they won five of the eight meetings between the teams and lost only once in regulation. Ottawa outscored Buffalo 35-20 in the season series.
“We’re definitely the underdog going into this series with the year Ottawa had and the offense they piled up and their record against us,” Ruff said. “We’ve got a challenge.”
Ottawa dispatched the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in five games, scoring 24 goals. Martin Havlat, who missed 58 games this season due to a dislocated shoulder, proved to be a key difference-maker as he scored in all five games and totaled six goals.
While Ottawa hasn’t played since closing out Tampa Bay on Saturday, Buffalo wrapped up its first-round series on Tuesday.
“We’re chomping at the bit and anxious to get going,” said Senators right wing Dany Heatley, who had 10 points in the first round. “Buffalo’s playing very well. I think it will be a fast-skating series. We’re going to have to be ready.”
Goaltender Ray Emery posted a .924 save percentage in the first round by stopping 158 of 171 shots, erasing any doubts he would be Ottawa’s weak link after replacing the injured Dominik Hasek. It’s uncertain if Hasek will return at any point during the postseason, though he definitely will not play in this series against his former team.
Emery’s counterpart also is in his first postseason and played well in the first round. Ryan Miller followed sub-par outings in losing Games 3 and 4 at Philadelphia by allowing only one goal in the final two games, including a 3-0 shutout in Game 5.
This series marks the first time rookie goaltenders will be squaring off in the second round or later since 1986, when Montreal’s Patrick Roy beat Calgary’s Mike Vernon in the Stanley Cup final.
One of Miller’s toughest challenges will be helping slow down Ottawa’s trio of Havlat, Heatley and Jason Spezza, who combined for 30 points in the quarterfinals.
Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson may be primed to break out in this round. The 33-year-old Swede had only one goal and three assists against Tampa, but totaled eight goals and six assists in eight games against the Sabres this season.
“It will be a good test, they’re playing real good hockey right now,” Spezza said. “A lot of how we do in the playoffs is how we play. We’ll be ready.”
Senators defenseman Chris Phillips is questionable for this game with a knee injury suffered in Game 4 of the quarterfinal series.
The Sabres have won both playoff series with the Senators, advancing out of the first round each time. Buffalo won in seven games in 1997 to spoil Ottawa’s first trip to the postseason, and pulled off a four-game sweep of a second-seeded Senators team in 1999.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Sabres - 110 points, 4th seed; beat Philadelphia Flyers 4-2, quarterfinals. Senators - 113 points, 1st seed; beat Tampa Bay Lightning 4-1, quarterfinals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Sabres - J.P. Dumont and Jason Pominville, 4 goals; Daniel Briere, 6 assists and 9 points; Toni Lydman, 10 PIM. Senators - Havlat, 6 goals; Heatley and Spezza, 8 assists; Havlat, Heatley and Spezza, 10 points; Zdeno Chara, 15 PIM.
PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Sabres - Power play: 17.1 percent (7 for 41). Penalty killing: 89.7 percent (26 for 29). Senators - Power play: 33.3 percent (8 for 24). Penalty killing: 87.1 percent (27 for 31).
GOALTENDERS: Sabres - Miller (4-2, 1 SO, 2.02 GAA); Martin Biron (no appearances). Senators - Emery (4-1, 0, 2.62); Mike Morrison (no appearances).
2005-06 SEASON SERIES: Senators, 5-1-2. Ottawa’s domination of the series featured a 10-4 rout Nov. 2, a game in which Havlat and Alfredsson each scored four goals. Spezza had a goal and 12 assists for Ottawa, while Briere had five goals and three assists to lead Buffalo. The Sabres won the last two games, including a 6-4 victory April 8 at Ottawa in which Tim Connolly scored twice.