BOSTON – The Buffalo Sabres hoped to get a better playoff start than splitting the first two games at home and losing their top goal scorer.
Now they have to play Monday night in Boston where the Bruins may be shaking their struggles at home. They may even treat their fans to a newfound scoring touch after a 5-3 victory Saturday.
“I think it gives us confidence,” Boston’s Milan Lucic said Sunday. “We have to realize that we were relentless and we played like a determined hockey club and we’ve got to keep that up.”
The Bruins, the NHL’s second-lowest scoring team in the regular season, beat the Sabres after dropping the opener 2-1 two days earlier. What made Game 2 more damaging for Buffalo was the loss of Thomas Vanek with an apparent left foot injury.
Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said Sunday it’s doubtful Vanek will play Monday night, but Vanek was confident he’d return at some point in the opening round.
Sabres defenceman Steve Montador expects the team to stick with the same system without Vanek.
“Thomas is hard to replace, but one player doesn’t make a team, and you can say that about any one guy in our lineup,” Montador said. “We want to continue to play hard, play our system and we’ll get the chances that we need if we continue to work.”
The Bruins know what it’s like to lose a key offensive player. Marc Savard, their top playmaker, was limited by injuries to 41 games and is still sidelined with a concussion after taking a blindside hit from Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke on March 7.
Boston scored just 206 goals, two more than Calgary. But the Bruins also allowed the second-fewest goals, 200. New Jersey was the NHL’s stingiest team with 191.
In Vanek’s absence, first-line centre Tim Connolly becomes more important to the Sabres. Buffalo’s second leading scorer, Connolly missed the last nine games of the regular season with a foot injury but played in both post-season games.
“I definitely can play better,” he said. “The first couple of games I didn’t get a lot accomplished out there, especially offensively.
“It’s good sometimes to get on the road during the playoffs. You can really just go there and focus on playing the game. There’s nothing else going on. I personally like playing on the road, especially in the playoffs.”
After beating Philadelphia 2-1 in the Winter Classic at Fenway Park on New Year’s Day, the Bruins lost 10 straight games at TD Garden, their regular home. But in their last three home games, they played well in a 1-0 loss to Florida then beat Buffalo 3-1 and Carolina 4-2.
“We won the last couple games, but the other games before, too, that some of them that we lost, we were dominant,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “So it’s not that we’ve played terrible here. We weren’t getting results there for a while. But I think our team feels pretty confident in our home building.”
Ruff expects a loud crowd.
“Our execution has to be good,” he said. If “we win some faceoffs and battle hard in the circles it’ll give us the opportunity to negate some of that early energy in that building. But I’d expect there’s going to be a lot of energy. I’ve seen it in all the buildings we’ve visited in the playoffs.”
The first game was tied 1-1 before Buffalo won. In Game 2, the Bruins fell behind 2-0 then put five goals past star goalie Ryan Miller, including two each by Zdeno Chara and Michael Ryder.
The loss was Buffalo’s first in 32 games this season in which it led after two periods.
“Knowing that we were able to put a couple in and get a win in a building that they’re good playing in, it was good for us confidence-wise,” Boston defenceman Andrew Ference said.
Now Buffalo gets a chance to regain home ice advantage after coming close to sweeping the first two games before squandering a lead. It would help if their power play, scoreless in nine chances in the series, improved.
“We’ve had some good opportunities that we’ve missed on,” Ruff said. “We need more attack. We’ve gotten a little bit passive.”
The Bruins have gotten just what they want.
“Anytime you start off on the road, you want to come back with at least a split,” Julien said. “We’ve done that.”