The State of New York is holding its breath tonight . Tomorrow, round 2 of the National Hockey League playoffs begins in earnest as the Number 1 seeded Sabres meet the 6th-ranked Rangers in what promises to be the most interesting of the two Eastern Conference semi-finals. Don’t worry, Connecticut, your big Empire State brother is not suffocating – go back to spawning insurance companies and please continue ignoring hockey completely.
I have prepared a preview of the Rangers/Sabres series to help fill the empty spaces in your life. It has also helped fill certain empty spaces in my life, given the complete absence of my Leafs from the tournament once again this year. (*Sigh*)
The Skinny: Fear not, good citizens of Buffalo – revenge of a rather unsatisfactory sort will soon be yours for Scott Norwood’s missed field goal effort against the Giants in Super Bowl XXV. The Sabres will win this series in six games. Oh, and sorry for bringing up that thing about the Super Bowl. Hey, at least I didn’t mention Brett Hull’s foot-in-the-crease overtime winner.
Let me ‘Splain. Although Larry Brooks has been talking up the Rangers recently, suggesting that the Rangers have the best record over the course of the late-season run, it bears remembering that their are lies, damn lies and statistics. Looking closely at the numbers, it is without a doubt true that the Rangers had a very weak schedule (in terms of the strength of their opponents) over this time frame. The Blueshirts won 17 games after the 9th of February, but only 5 of these came against playoff-bound teams. Three of those five wins came at the expense of their crosstown rivals the Islanders, who qualified in the lowest seed position only after a heroic effort to run the table and win their final four games of the year. What all of this means is that the Rangers matched up great against the Islanders and various other opponents who were not invited to Lord Stanley’s prom this year.
Too bad for them they’ll be facing the number one seeded, President’s Trophy winning Buffalo Sabres, otherwise known as the odds-on-favourite Prom Kings. Examining the Sabres’ record over the very same period – February 9th ’til the end of the regular season – the Sabres won 16 games, six against playoff-bound opponents (Penguins, Islanders, Devils, Lightning, Flames and Senators). Translation: in a period during which the Rangers were supposedly hot like a Tonawanda townhouse, they won exactly one more game than the Sabres, and did it against weaker opponents.
Did I mention that the Sabres absolutely owned their Broadway rivals during the regular season? How does winning 4 out of 4 meetings sound? The Rangers better hope that ice plant failures in both teams’ buildings force the league to decree that the winner of this series will be decided according to whose city has the largest number of giant statues received as a gift from France; if the teams compete instead at hockey, Madison Square Garden can book the circus for a bonus run in May.
I give a slight edge to the Rangers in the goaltending department. King Henrik’s numbers (the important ones like save percentage and goals-against average) are better than Ryan Miller’s. In terms of previous exposure to pressure, while Miller carried the load for the Sabres during last year’s lengthy run-to-the-almost-final, Lundqvist has a shiny golden knick knack somewhere in his dresser drawer as a reminder of his recent trip to Torino that tells me he can stare down some pretty good shooters competing at a high level and not come up with a case of the yips. What Lundqvist doesn’t yet have is significant post-season experience: a four game sweep of the Thrashers has not been an accurate harbinger of the bad things yet to come. I have a feeling that in years to come, Henrik will suggest that using that series as a preview of his encounter with the Sabres was kind of like watching the trailer for Big Momma’s House 2: you just know it’s gonna be bad, but you have no idea how soul-achingly bad it can get until you’ve paid 13 bucks to see Martin Lawrence in drag and a fat suit. Again.
Whatever advantage Lundqvist represents to the Rangers, in a general sense, though, is moderated when one recognizes that the Sabres seem to have had his number at times this year. In their final regular-season meeting on December 1st, for example, although Buffalo was outshot 39-19 and took only 8 shots on goal over the final two periods, they scored two goals on the city so nice they named it twice, and won in a shootout.
The edge has to go to the Sabres here. Numminen, Campbell, Tallinder and Kalinin are way better than any four Rangers defencemen, and running their surnames together like that also sounds kinda cool like a 70s prog-rock band. Of concern for both teams is the lack of a consistent shooting threat on the power play blueline. Look for Jagr to spend some time manning the New York point with the man-advantage to try to create offense where none would be otherwise forthcoming, and look for turnovers while on the power-play to burn the Rangers when Jagr gets caught trying to defend against the penalty-killing Buffalonians. Buffalo has Campbell, Spacek and Numminen to rely on during the power play; not exactly Paul Coffey material, but not exactly Daniel Girardi either (with apologies to Daniel Girardi).
Any team with Jagr, Nylander and Shanahan has obvious offensive talent, and the Rangers have some scoring depth too, with twenty goal scorers during the regular season. Here again, though, the Rangers play Anthony Michael Hall to the Sabres’ Eddie Murphy: Buffalo had seven twenty goal men, and an eighth with 19 markers. Never mind all that, though, it’s the playoffs and goals get progressively harder to come by, so let’s not pretend that regular season scoring numbers tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
What will be important is that it has been shown, over the course of the season, that above-average team speed and quickness on the puck must be combined to produce a withering forecheck to put Buffalo’s somewhat vulnerable defence back on its heels, causing some offensive chances for the forechecker but more importantly, disrupting the Sabres’ potent freewheeling attack. Buffalo’s offence is quick, creative and explosive – if the Rangers are unable to sustain such an attack, and it says here that they don’t have the skills necessary to do it (notwithstanding the best efforts of Sean Avery and Brendan Shanahan), that failure combined with the Sabres’ deadly counter-attack following turnovers in the neutral zone will have the Rangers hunting for decent tee times in no time flat.
All bets are off if: Ryan Miller gets injured. No offense to Ty Conklin, but his playoff track record doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. I reserve right to pretend I never wrote any of the above if Miller pulls up lame at any point during the series.