“The sky hasn’t fallen in yet, has it?” Miller said after practice Friday. “It wouldn’t be the Sabres if we didn’t do it the hard way.”
For a team whose lone objective when the season began was winning the Stanley Cup, the Sabres sure haven’t made things look easy.
After playing inconsistently in their first two playoff rounds, the Sabres find themselves down for the first time this postseason after being outplayed Thursday in a 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Besides giving up three third-period goals—half of the total they allowed in the final period during six games against the New York Rangers in the last round—and committing 19 turnovers, the NHL’s most potent offense managed a meager 20 shots on net.
No secret the Sabres have to find their swagger if they want to rebound when they host Game 2 on Saturday.
“It’s one game,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “I know it’s tough. It doesn’t sit well with anybody. … We haven’t reacted with a lot of moxie. But we’ve been able to bounce back.”
The Sabres are accustomed to dealing with adversity. They led the league with 53 regular-season wins despite at one point missing seven players to injuries. And then there was last postseason, when Buffalo overcame the loss of five regulars to come within a win of reaching the Stanley Cup finals.
“We’ve risen to a lot of challenges along the way,” co-captain Chris Drury said. “I think guys understand what tomorrow means.”
The Senators continue to be on a considerable roll, improving to 9-2 this postseason, and further shedding their long history of playoff disappointments. Ottawa is making only its second conference final appearance despite making the playoffs for a 10th straight year.
“Winning does that, it’s amazing,” Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said, referring to the team playing with a renewed sense of confidence. “You can say a lot of different reasons why we’re playing the way we are, but we believe in what we’re doing and we’re working hard for what we’re getting.”
The Senators can take another big step with a win Saturday, which would mark the first time in franchise history the team had won the first two games of a series. Their only two losses this postseason have come in second games against Pittsburgh and New Jersey.
“Really? Somewhere down the line they’ve had to be up 2-0,” Senators forward Dany Heatley said in mock surprise. “Yeah, everyone knows that. But we also know that’s in the past and it’s another Game 2 we’d love to get. We’ll be ready to go.”
If the opener proved anything, it’s that the Senators had the big edge in special teams. They converted two of six power plays, and Mike Fisher’s game-opening goal came on a short-handed breakaway.
The Senators were adept at pressuring Sabres point-men by keeping a forward unusually close to the blue line. Besides causing turnovers, the strategy allowed Ottawa to have a player sneak in behind Buffalo’s defense, which led to several breakaway chances.
The Sabres are countering with a series of line shuffles.
Co-captain Daniel Briere will be reunited with former linemates Jason Pominville and Jochen Hecht. That means center Tim Connolly will likely return to the fourth line, while winger Ales Kotalik will be back with Drury and Dainius Zubrus
Briere, who led the team with 95 points (32 goals and 63 assists) in the regular season, has been inconsistent in the playoffs. He has 11 points (two goals and eight assists), but has yet to score an even-strength goal.
“You know, I’m not happy with my game,” Briere said. “But I’ve got to move on and get on to tomorrow night. I can’t waste energy. I wasted enough energy last night going through the game over and over again. Now today is a new day.”
Connolly, Zubrus and defenseman Dmitri Kalinin missed practice Friday, but Ruff said all three should play in Game 2.
The Sabres are attempting to overcome their own poor playoff history. Buffalo is 1-13 in best-of-seven series after losing Game 1.