BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP)—It didn’t take long for Tom Renney’s views about the Sabres not being the “cream of the crop” to reach Buffalo’s locker room Tuesday.
Whatever the New York Rangers coach’s intentions were in making that comment a day earlier, the top-seeded and President’s Trophy-winning Sabres made sure they interpreted it in the worst possible light.
“He better have respect for some guys in here,” goalie Ryan Miller said. “Because if they approach it that we’re not that good, it’s going to bite them.”
“I’m not going to get into a word-match,” added co-captain Daniel Briere. “But it’s good. It’s good for our dressing room, definitely.”
So much for the emotional edge the Sabres lacked in bouncing the New York Islanders in five games of their first-round series. It’s a competitive passion that’s suddenly been rediscovered as Buffalo prepares to host the Rangers on Wednesday to open their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series.
“It’s a good thing to develop a little emotion and passion for your opposition,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “And the things they’ve said already about us, that’s good. I like that.”
Renney, on Tuesday, didn’t back off.
“When asked what I thought about the Sabres, I answered it as I wasn’t sure if they were the cream of the crop. But I do know one thing, they’re an awfully good hockey club,” Renney said. “But really, the Stanley Cup’s handed out in the middle of June, not yesterday morning at a little press conference.”
Renney also made clear the Rangers, coming off a four-game sweep of Southeast Division champion Atlanta, aren’t pushovers.
“We go into this series as the underdog, but we also believe that we belong in the tournament and only time will tell exactly how good either of us are,” Renney said.
The series features a matchup of two offensively talented teams, who both also have solid young goaltenders: Miller and New York’s Henrik Lundqvist.
Buffalo scored a league-leading 308 goals, and was only the fourth NHL team since 1996-97 to have four 30 goal-scorers.
The Rangers are led by Jaromir Jagr, whose 30 goals led a group of four players with 26 or more goals.
Buffalo, with a league-leading 53 victories, won 11 more games than New York, and also swept the four-game season series against the Rangers. Two of those wins, however, came in overtime and another in a shootout, and they haven’t met since Dec. 1.
“A lot of things change in four months,” Jagr said. “It’s about momentum, about timing and the time right now. … The most important thing to me is how you play right now. That’s why I think it brings us confidence.”
The Rangers have been on a roll. They finished sixth in the East and clinched their second consecutive playoff berth—and second in nine seasons— by going 13-3-4 in their final 20 games.
New York then outscored Atlanta 17-6—including a 7-0 win in Game 3—to advance to the second round for the first time since 1997.
Buffalo is in the second round for the second straight season after falling one win short of reaching the Stanley Cup finals with a Game 7 loss to eventual champion Carolina last year.
The Sabres, however, are still searching for their swagger after uncharacteristic lapses against the Islanders. Buffalo closed the series with a 4-3 win on Friday, a game in which it almost squandered two three-goal third-period leads.
Ruff blamed the lapses on the team having difficulty handling the high expectations that come with being the top seed.
“There seemed to be a lot of pressure with the Davey and Goliath thing last series,” Ruff said. “I think that pressure mounted. But it’s all behind us now. … We’ve addressed that and we’re moving on already.”
Besides Renney, Rangers instigator Sean Avery has also caught the Sabres’ attention.
Avery raised eyebrows by saying, “I’m going to try to hurt them and hit them and get in their face as much as I can.”
Ruff discounted the comments saying: “That’s just Avery being Avery.”
Miller merely shook his head.
“He’s talented enough to play in the NHL without the drama,” Miller said. “His comments are just that, comments.”