The Buffalo Sabres were the NHL’s best team during the regular season. There’s good reason to believe they will be even better in the playoffs.
The top-seeded Sabres begin what they expect will be a very deep run into the postseason Thursday night when they host the New York Islanders in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
After leading the NHL with 113 points and 53 wins, anything less than the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title would be a major disappointment for the Sabres (53-22-7). Buffalo hopes to become the first Presidents’ Trophy winner to take home the Stanley Cup since Detroit in 2001-02.
“Anything short of a Stanley Cup is going to be a letdown,” goaltender Ryan Miller said. “That’s pretty obvious to us and everyone.”
The Sabres, however, are well aware that their top seed won’t help them once the puck drops. They also know that Detroit finished with the league’s best record last season and lost its first-round matchup with eighth-seeded Edmonton in six games.
“It certainly is something that we’ll have in mind,” right wing Jason Pominville said. “We’re the top seed. Teams are going to be ready for us and we just have to make sure that we’re going to be ready for them.”
Buffalo suffered numerous injuries during the regular season, but appears to finally be healthy at the most opportune time.
Right wing Maxim Afinogenov, a three-time 20-goal scorer, missed nearly two months with a broken wrist before returning for the final three games of the regular season. Center Tim Connolly, meanwhile, played the final two games after missing the entire season with post-concussion symptoms and a knee injury.
Connolly, who began his career with the Islanders (40-30-12) in 1999, had 55 points in 63 games last season. He added 11 points in eight playoff games before suffering his second concussion.
“It’s been a long time in waiting,” Connolly said. “But that’s behind me now. It’s great to be back.”
The most difficult task for the Islanders will be trying to match the Sabres’ outstanding depth and speed. Buffalo led the NHL with 308 goals and is only the fourth team since 1996-97 to feature four 30-goal scorers. The last two such teams have won the Stanley Cup, including Carolina last season.
The Sabres only had one 30-goal scorer last season but came within one win of the finals, losing Game 7 of the conference finals to eventual champion Carolina.
“Well, obviously, last year helped us a lot. It gave us a taste of what it was all about,” Pominville said. “It kind of made us hungry and want it more. And hopefully, we can get to that next step.”
Despite all their offensive talent, the Sabres’ most important player is Miller, who set a franchise record with 40 wins this season. He was 11-7 with 2.56 goals-against average and one shutout in his first postseason in 2006, and is 5-4-0 with a 2.90 GAA in nine career starts against New York.
Just making the playoffs was an accomplishment for the Islanders, who were picked by many to finish near the bottom of the league before the season. They had to win their final four games without No. 1 goaltender Rick DiPietro - their most important player - to sneak into eighth place, culminating with a shootout victory Sunday at New Jersey.
“It’s all about opportunity in this game,” said Islanders forward Ryan Smyth, acquired from Edmonton at the trade deadline. “We didn’t quit, and obviously I was an added extra piece to the puzzle to help the organization get in. That’s all you can ask for as a player is to get in.”
This series will provide something of a homecoming for Islanders coach Ted Nolan, who won coach of the year honors with the Sabres in 1996-97. He left the team after rejecting a one-year contract offer and was out of the NHL until he was hired by the Islanders in June.
With DiPietro sidelined with a concussion, third-string goalie Wade Dubielewicz will try to continue his remarkable run when he makes his playoff debut. Dubielewicz allowed two goals in each of his last four starts to lift the Isles into the postseason, but even he knows the Islanders are a better team with DiPietro.
“Let’s be realistic, he’s the franchise player, he’s a world-class goalie,” Dubielewicz said. “When he’s in the net, we have a better chance to win. Rick’s an incredible goalie.”
The Sabres won three of four against the Islanders in the regular season and have taken seven of the last eight meetings. Buffalo has outscored New York 21-12 during a four-game home win streak in the series.
This is the first postseason meeting between these teams since 1979-80, when the Islanders beat the Sabres in six games in the semifinals on their way to the first of four straight Stanley Cups.