The Senators bit the playoff dust last spring on Jason Pominville’s overtime goal right in Ottawa. Going out in five games in the second round after being top-seeded in the NHL’s Eastern Conference was a bitter disappointment and they haven’t forgotten that the Sabres were the ones that did it to them.
The Sabres would like nothing better than to knock them off again – especially after Chris Neil’s blindside hit on Chris Drury, who was walking around wondering what planet he was on after taking 20 stitches across the forehead in crashing to the ice in a Feb. 22 game.
Emotions will run high when they meet in Game 1 of the conference final, which will begin no earlier than Thursday, and the team that can best control them might gain the upper hand.
“We knew we were going to have to go through these guys to win (the Stanley Cup),” Ottawa’s Jason Spezza said during league conference calls Monday. “When you play a team as much as we’ve played them, there’s going to be a rivalry.”
In eight regular-season meetings, Ottawa won five in regulation time, while Buffalo won two in regulation and one in a shootout.
Now both teams have survived two rounds of playoffs.
“There was a lot of animosity in our series with Pittsburgh, the New Jersey series was a cat-and-mouse game, and as you go along the passion gets higher,” said Spezza.
It took a few games for the top-seeded Sabres to work up a dislike for the Islanders in the first round, and some intense play against the Rangers stirred things up but, in this series, a hate factor will be in place before the first puck is dropped, says the Sabres’ Thomas Vanek.
“The bad blood is there from before,” said Vanek. “We have a big rivalry with Ottawa. We always have tough games against them. We’re looking forward to it.”
While Buffalo has many offensive options, Ottawa’s line of Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley has spearheaded the attack. They’ll see a lot of the shut-down defence pair of Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder. The trio amassed 23 points against the Devils.
“I was feeling pretty good before you mentioned that,” kidded Ruff. “Obviously, they’re one of their keys. We have to respect that line.”
Murray wants more from others.
“We’ll expect a bit more from the (Mike) Fisher line in point contribution,” he said.
Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips have acted as Ottawa’s shut-down D pair.
“We know we have to play defence first no matter who we play,” said Ottawa coach Bryan Murray.
Last spring’s elimination at the hands of the Sabres is irrelevant now, he said.
“It’s not deja vu as far as this team is concerned,” said Murray. “This is a very different hockey club than last year.
“Last year I saw a team with a lot of flair that could score goals, an exciting team to watch.”
A team that also gave up too many scoring chances.
“We realized things had to be different,” Murray said. “We don’t want to play the trap but we want to play hard defensively.”
Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff, who was fined $10,000 by the league for his part in brawling by his players after the Neil-Drury incident, says this series could be wildly unpredictable. He based his comment on last year’s series between the teams. Buffalo won twice in overtime including a 13-goal opener to seize a 3-0 edge before Ottawa won 2-1 in Buffalo. The Sabres third OT win, 3-2 on the Pominville goal, ended it.
“This series can go a number of directions,” said Ruff.
One of the directions he doesn’t want it going is towards the penalty box and he doesn’t expect that to be a problem.
“We’ll talk about it internally but, for me, it’s a non-factor,” said Ruff. “The big prize here is that one team is going to go on to play for the Stanley Cup.
“Penalties for retaliation for something that happened months ago, if you’re going to take them at this time of year, your mindset is in the wrong place.”
The Sabres stalled last spring when they lost too many defencemen to injuries, but they are healthy this time.
“We all recognize and realize that the expectations in the city are sky-high,” said Ruff. “That has carried over from how well we played in last year’s playoffs and coming out and having the season we had this year (in finishing first overall).
“There’s a lot of excitement in the city.”
The Sabres’ attacking style “creates a little bit of looseness to our game” that results in opposition scoring chances. But Ruff is okay with that.
“You have to play to your strengths and our strength this year was that we were a sound offensive team,” he reasons.
Said Murray: “They have more offensive talent than the two teams we’ve played to this point.”
Many of the Sabres say they haven’t played their best game yet despite being 8-3 in the post-season.
“We’ve had some disappointing periods, which has taken some of the wind out of our sails,” said Ruff.
Neil is bound to be a central figure in the series.
“I don’t think we’ll worry about that,” said Vanek. “Chris gets back (at opponents) by scoring goals. That’s what makes him such a great leader.”
Notes: Alfredsson leads Ottawa with six post-season goals. Heatley and Spezza have five each . . . Drury has a team-best seven and Vanek five for Buffalo . . . Ottawa goalie Ray Emery is 8-2 with a 2.04 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in the playoffs, while Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller is 8-3 with a 2.07 GAA and .928 save percentage . . . Ottawa has never eliminated Buffalo. The Senators were swept by the Sabres in the first round in 1999 and they lost in Game 7 overtime in the first round in 1997.