Fresh off a matchup against star winger Jaromir Jagr in Buffalo’s second-round series win over the New York Rangers, the Sabres’ top shutdown defence duo now has an equally imposing task: trying to contain Ottawa’s top line of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson.
How that matchup goes will have a major bearing on the outcome of the best-of-seven series.
“It’s a huge challenge – once again,” Lydman said Wednesday on the eve of Game 1 (7 p.m. ET). “It wasn’t easy in the second round, playing against Jagr’s line. And it’s not getting any easier, it’s getting harder now.”
They’ll need to do a much better job than the New Jersey Devils, who were shredded by Spezza’s line to the tune of 23 combined points in five games in the second round. And the Devils are known for their defensive hockey.
“It’s going to be a tough task,” said Tallinder. “They’re such good, all-around players, and they know how to find each other at all times. It’s no secret, we’re going to try our best to shut them down, try to limit their space and time as much as possible.”
They’ve watched the Devils-Sens video and they’ve also faced Ottawa in eight games during the regular season. There’s no need to remind Tallinder and Lydman just how dangerous Spezza’s line can be.
“They’ve got so much skill, if you start running around they’ll make you look like an idiot,” Lydman said in his Finnish accent. “You just have to play smart, make sure you’re in position and also make sure you don’t turn the puck over. That’s the key.”
The fear of looking bad against Ottawa’s offensive dynamos also motivates Tallinder.
“It’s a lot of pride,” said the Swede. “You don’t want to look stupid out there.”
They deserve some credit, too. Not many hockey fans have Tallinder and Lydman on the tip of their tongues when it comes to top NHL blue-liners, but the pair has been effective all season long at shutting down the other team’s most dangerous threats.
“They’re arguably one of the most underrated shutdown pairs in the league, I think,” Spezza said after practice in Ottawa. “They both skate real well, they both make that first pass. They’re not a physical D pairing, but they both block shots well and make that first pass.
“That’s probably what makes them so tough as a shutdown pair.”
Tallinder and Lydman aren’t the bone-crunching types like Ottawa’s top shutdown pair Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov. Instead, the Sabres’ duo rely on their skating, vision, positioning and smart decision-making to outwit opponents.
“Both of them are good skaters, they’re quick to get to the puck,” said Alfredsson. “Against New Jersey, their D backed up more and gave us a lot of time. I don’t think they will. I think they want to try and pressure us as much as they can.”
The key, Alfredsson said, is to chip the puck in and finish their checks against them.
“Because they’re not the biggest guys, I hope we can win more battles against them down low,” said Alfredsson.
Spezza agreed with his captain.
“I think we have to be a little more physical than we normally are,” said the star centre. “When you play against two guys that don’t really tend to lean towards the physical side of the game, if we can get on them, be physical with them and take away their time, then that probably gives us our best opportunity to get a good forecheck.”
Lydman can’t wait. He was excited to get out of bed every morning in the second round when facing Jagr. Now he’s got more fun coming his way.
“I think anybody who plays hockey wants to be on the ice during those last minutes or whenever the other team is putting their big players on the ice,” said Lydman.
The challenge is different this round, said Tallinder. With Jagr, who played on a line with the playmaker Michael Nylander and checker Marcel Hossa, the focus was mostly on the Czech superstar. With Spezza’s line, all three players are equally a concern.
“Jagr is so good one on one, he can create a chance by himself from nothing,” said Tallinder. “These guys are more of a line, they use each other more, they find each other all the time.”
Helping in the checking job once again will be Chris Drury’s forward line. The Sabres co-captain was also mostly matched up against Jagr’s line in the previous series alongside Dainius Zubrus and lately Jochen Hecht.
“We know them very well,” said Heatley. “With the Drury line, they’ve matched us pretty much the last 15, 20 games we’ve played them.”
Spezza’s line must be aware at both ends of the ice. When Drury isn’t busy helping Tallinder and Lydman in the defensive end, he’s scoring clutch goals at the other.
with files from Chris Yzerman in Ottawa