PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference finals; tied 3-3.
The Buffalo Sabres’ confidence never wavered as they faced elimination for the first time in this postseason. Now the Sabres hope that self-assuredness can carry them past the Carolina Hurricanes and into the Stanley Cup finals.
The Sabres and Hurricanes return to the RBC Center for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals for the right to open play for the Cup on Monday at home.
Daniel Briere’s power-play goal 4:22 into overtime Tuesday lifted the Sabres to a 2-1 victory, and put both teams into a situation in which they have hardly thrived. Buffalo is 1-4 in Game 7s, while Carolina is 0-3. The Sabres’ lone Game 7 win came in 1997 against Ottawa, which was also the only time they’ve rallied from a 3-2 series deficit.
Buffalo, though, seems unfazed by anything surrounding the back-and-forth series as it looks to return to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1999. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff insisted after Carolina’s 4-3 overtime victory in Game 5 on Sunday that the pressure to close out the series was squarely on the Hurricanes—an indication of the Sabres’ belief in themselves they have maintained throughout the season.
“It’s been our M.O. all year, just a fearless bunch of guys,” Buffalo forward Chris Drury said. “We always seem to find a way. It’s certainly no different tonight. Just our poise, too.”
The Sabres rebounded to keep their season alive after being dominated 4-0 in losing Game 4 at home, then falling in OT on Sunday to be pushed to the brink. Thursday’s winner will be at home for Game 1 on Monday as it tries to capture its first Stanley Cup in a matchup with the Edmonton Oilers.
“It’s going to be fun,” Ruff said of Game 7. “Every game has been tight and these guys just keep pushing through. … You stand back there and know you are going to get the effort, which is pretty special.”
Now it’s Carolina’s turn to have its resilience tested, and the Hurricanes have also faced adversity in these playoffs. The second-seeded Hurricanes trailed 2-0 in the first round against the Montreal Canadiens after dropping the first two games at home, but went on to win the next four. That series victory propelled them to a five-game win over the New Jersey Devils in the conference semifinals.
“We can’t sulk and hang our heads,” defenseman Glen Wesley said. “We did a lot of positive things. … We took a penalty (in overtime) and almost had the kill. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the win.”
While Buffalo has gone with Ryan Miller in goal throughout the playoffs, Carolina coach Peter Laviolette has alternated veteran Martin Gerber with first-year player Cam Ward in this series. Gerber went in for Ward in Buffalo’s 4-3 victory in Game 3 after Ward allowed four goals on 26 shots, and Gerber then blanked the Sabres in Game 4.
Laviolette, though, is all but certain to stay with Ward, who has starred in his first postseason, in Game 7. The rookie played well Tuesday night, making 29 saves, one game after stopping all 15 shots he faced in relieving Gerber on Sunday. That performance sparked his team to the 4-3 overtime win after it trailed 3-1.
Ward was hardly shaken by Tuesday’s overtime loss, and even seemed more relaxed than Laviolette, who disagreed with the penalty called on Carolina center Doug Weight that led to Briere’s goal.
“We can moan all about it, but it’s not going to change a thing. We have to keep our heads up and get ready for Game 7,” Ward said.
While Laviolette knows his protests over the penalty call won’t change Tuesday’s result, he also knows his team must get off to a better start in Game 7 if it wants to make it second Stanley Cup finals appearance and first since 2002. The Hurricanes came out flat and were outshot 14-5 in the first period, falling behind on J.P. Dumont’s goal 4:56 into the game.
“Obviously, the emotions are not good,” said Laviolette, whose club was outshot 31-26 overall. “We’re going to have to be a lot sharper than that.”
The Hurricanes will try to take advantage of a Buffalo defense that continues to be ravaged by injuries. Already playing Game 6 without defenseman Henrik Tallinder (broken arm) and Dmitri Kalinin (ankle), the Sabres then lost Teppo Numminen, who returned after missing four games with a hip flexor but was limited to 4:13 of ice time in the first period and spent the rest of the game watching from the bench. His status for Thursday is uncertain, and Jeff Jillson would likely replace Numminen if he is unable to play.
It may be fitting that two teams that feature depth and speed, finished with 52 regular-season victories and are both 11-6 in the postseason will play in a one-game showdown.
“I love this, this is fun for us,” Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell said. “We’re battered, bruised, but we just want to keep going. … I don’t want to go home yet.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Sabres - 4th seed; beat Philadelphia Flyers 4-2, quarterfinals; beat Ottawa Senators 4-1; semifinals. Hurricanes - 2nd seed; beat Montreal Canadiens 4-2, quarterfinals; beat New Jersey Devils 4-1, semifinals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Sabres - Drury, 9 goals; Briere, 11 assists and 19 points; Jay McKee, 30 PIM. Hurricanes - Rod Brind’Amour, 8 goals; Eric Staal, 13 assists and 20 points; Justin Williams, 28 PIM.
PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Sabres - Power play: 16.8 percent (16 for 95). Penalty killing: 82.8 percent (72 for 87). Hurricanes - Power play: 26.2 percent (21 for 80). Penalty killing: 83.0 percent (73 for 88).
GOALTENDERS: Sabres - Miller (11-6, 1, 2.48 GAA); Martin Biron (no appearances). Hurricanes - Ward (10-5, 1 SO, 2.08); Gerber (1-1, 1, 3.53).