How else to explain how the Senators have turned the tables on their division rival and longtime playoff nemesis?
Coming off a gutty 4-3 double-overtime victory—the type of game the Sabres used to win—at Buffalo on Saturday, the Senators returned home with a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals. That puts Ottawa in a prime position to erase the lingering memories of being eliminated by Buffalo in its three previous playoff meetings, including a second-round loss last year.
And talk about confidence, the Senators are brimming with it. They’ve won the first two games of a series for the first time in franchise history, and they’re on a major roll, 41-9-8 since Dec. 23, including NHL-best 10-2 this postseason.
“I think that’s a big reason for where we are right now, the second half of our season, the way we played, the consistency we’ve shown,” captain Daniel Alfredsson said Sunday following a 20-minute team meeting. “I think we feel confident that in a seven-game series, we’re going to go out and give ourselves a lot of chances.”
The series is in Ottawa for Games 3 and 4 on Monday and Wednesday nights.
Suddenly, it’s the Sabres who are on their heels, down two games for the first time since trailing Pittsburgh 2-0 in a 2001 second-round series, which Buffalo eventually lost in seven games.
“Well, if we were up 2-0, we’d feel a little more confident and feel a little more better about our play and about ourselves,” Briere said. “Now that we’re down 0-2, it’s a little more frustrating. … It’s a new challenge for us.”
The Senators’ latest victory is being described as the biggest in franchise history. Besides rallying from a 2-0 early deficit, Ottawa refused to wilt after Briere forced overtime by scoring with 5.8 seconds left in regulation.
The Senators dominated in overtime, finally winning when defenseman Joseph Corvo bounced in a shot from the blue line 4:58 into the second extra frame.
“Yeah, that was one of the bigger wins we’ve been through,” Ottawa veteran defenseman Wade Redden said. “It sure felt good. And being up 2-0 is a good feeling.”
That’s a considerable switch for a team that, despite making its 10th straight postseason appearance, is competing in only its second conference final and has never advanced to the Stanley Cup finals.
The top-seeded Sabres have lost four of six, are 8-5 overall this postseason and allowed 13 goals in their past three games. And they’re looking nothing like the team that opened the season with an NHL-matching 10 straight wins and finished the season with a league-leading 53 wins and 308 goals.
More disturbing, Buffalo had not squandered a two-goal lead in 46 games this season, including six in the playoffs.
“You just have to put it behind you,” co-captain Chris Drury said. “Certainly the challenge has presented itself so it’s now or never.”
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was disappointed with calls that went against his team, including Alfredsson crosschecking defenseman Henrik Tallinder from behind and headfirst into the boards midway through the first overtime.
Alfredsson wasn’t penalized. Tallinder was slow to get up and left the game briefly before returning to play. Ruff listed him as questionable for Monday.
What also stung is how the Sabres failed to build off Briere’s goal.
“There’s always disappointment in losing in the fashion you lost,” Ruff said. “You pick up the pieces and move on.”
Ruff noted that Carolina, last year’s Cup champion, trailed Montreal 2-0 in a first-round series last year before winning it in six.
The Senators are so confident that coach Bryan Murray acknowledged the team has found a flaw in Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller’s game. Murray wouldn’t say specifically what it is, but three of the Senators’ four goals in Game 2 came on raised shots from at least 30 feet out.
“Yeah, there’s things in his game,” Murray said. “They’ve talked a lot about the edge in goaltending and all that. But we think there’s very definitely a situation where we can score some goals on him.”