With their star goaltender cleared for practice for the first time in three weeks, the Islanders certainly need a boost after discovering how difficult it is to beat Buffalo when the No. 1-seeded Sabres are on top of their game. Chris Drury and Brian Campbell each scored two goals in helping the Sabres efficiently open the playoffs with a 4-1 win in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference series Thursday night.
As they did in finishing the season with a league-leading 53 wins and 308 goals, the Sabres showed their balanced offence. Campbell’s game-opening goal was set up by fourth-line centre Tim Connolly, and Buffalo converted 2-of-6 power-play chances.
Better still, Buffalo was sound on defence, limiting the Islanders to 21 shots, including just one in the first period.
“We’re deep when we roll the lines like we did tonight,” said Campbell, who also added an assist. “It’s a huge positive for our hockey club.”
And Campbell shrugged when informed of DiPietro potentially being available for Game 2 at Buffalo on Saturday.
“I don’t think a goaltender can change too much,” Campbell said, referring to the Sabres’ approach. “If he’s in, then that’s the goalie we face and we go after it.”
DiPietro missed the Islanders final seven regular-season games, out since sustaining his second concussion March 25. He was cleared to travel earlier in the day and arrived in time to watch the team’s loss.
“We’re optimistic,” said DiPietro, who will practise Friday. “I’m looking forward to trying to get back.”
Goaltending, however, wasn’t the Isles’ problem Thursday.
Minor-league player Wade Dubielewicz, making his career playoff debut, kept the Isles in by stopping 20 of the first 22 shots, and finished with 31 saves.
The challenge for New York is determining how to generate offence while keeping the Sabres’ speedy forwards in check.
“Getting from defence to offence, the transition for us has to be better,” Isles coach Ted Nolan said. “But we can’t get caught up into trying to get too much offence, because if we do that, they’re too explosive the other way.”
The Islanders’ troubles were evident in the first period, when they were outshot 11-1, setting a franchise playoff low for fewest shots in a period. The previous low was two against Washington in both 1984 and in 1985.
Arron Asham scored New York’s lone goal, tying the game seven minutes into the second.
The Sabres took control when Drury scored a power-play goal five minutes later. Driving into the slot, he flipped in a loose puck after Campbell’s shot was blocked in front.
Drury then made it 3-1 when he one-timed Dainius Zubrus’ cross-ice pass just as a Sabres power play ended a minute into the third, while Campbell later added a power-play goal. Zubrus had three assists.
The win was the first step for a Sabres team whose lone objective since the start of the season has been winning the Stanley Cup. Buffalo is focused after returning the same core of players that got within one win of last year’s finals before losing to eventual champion Carolina.
“It was good to see us playing with confidence for us in that part of the game,” goalie Ryan Miller said, referring to the Sabres’ defensive effort. “It’s good to see we put it together and play a complete game.
“It was a very good outing for us.”
The Islanders are making their first playoff appearance since 2004, and attempting to advance past the first round for the first time since 1993. They’ve lost three straight first-round series since.
Islanders forward Ryan Smyth was hopeful when learning of DiPietro’s potential return.
“If that’s the case, it doesn’t hurt our chances,” Smyth said. “Ricky’s been a huge backbone for this team.”
Notes: Isles RW Richard Zednik returned after being excused for the team’s final nine games to attend a family emergency. New York D Bruno Gervais returned after missing 24 games with ankle injuries. … Campbell became the third Sabres defenceman to score twice in a playoff game, and first since Phil Housley did it in 1983. … The one shot allowed in the first period matched a Sabres playoff record set five previous times.