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Neil hit, brawl with Sens, not Sabres' focus heading into Eastern Conference final

"Believe it or not, no one really talks about it," said co-captain Chris Drury. "Not to put it on you guys (the media), but we're not in there talking about it or watching it or thinking about it."

The hype ahead of the NHL's Eastern Conference final is not only fed by the February brawl in Buffalo but also by last season's five-game series win by the Sabres over the Senators in the second round of the playoffs. The local sports radio station is buzzing with anticipation ahead of Thursday's Game 1 against the hated Senators (7 p.m. ET).

The Sabres? They don't care for all the hype.

"I don't think it matters that it's the Senators, personally," said Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. "I look at this as a challenge because they're a good hockey team, they have talented players, but so are the Islanders, so are the Rangers and we have to focus on what we want to accomplish on the ice.

"We can't get caught up in, 'it's a title match, it's a grudge match', whatever boxing terminology everybody has been throwing around, it's just not it. It's hockey, we've got to play and I'd rather not focus on the fact that it's Ottawa and take extra motivation.

"There's plenty of motivation at the end of this road. It's going to take a month of hockey to do it. We've got two weeks of hockey committed to the Senators. That's all we have to do."

It was Chris Neil's borderline hit on Drury that started the brawl, knocking the Sabres star out with a serious concussion.

"I don't have any feelings on it," Drury said when asked about the hit. "For me, it ended when I stood up, got stitched up, showered up and that was it. I'm just getting ready to get focused forward Game 1 and that takes enough of my attention."

Senators head coach Bryan Murray said despite the media focus on the animosity between the teams during the regular season, there's no hatred between the two squads.

"Hate - what a terrible word," Murray said after practice in Ottawa. "Nobody hates anybody in our business. We're all partners in the National Hockey League in some respects. We're all competitive people who want to win - I want to beat Lindy Ruff, he wants to beat me. Our players want to beat their players.

"But I'm too old to hate people at this point a unless they write bad stuff about me."


SABRES SURGING: The Buffalo Sabres admit they haven't played their A game throughout the playoffs but star forward Daniel Briere sees signs that his team is surging.

"What I'm excited about is the way we finished the series against the Rangers," said Briere. "I think everybody agrees that we'd played well at times before those last two games but also hadn't played well at times ... I think there's a stretch where we were excellent but there's other times where we were so-so."

But Game 5 and Game 6 wins over the Rangers showed the kind of hockey the Sabres are capable of, Briere said.

"That's what I'm excited about," he said.

The ups and downs of series wins over the Islanders and Rangers this spring were good for his team, said head coach Lindy Ruff.

"I think we've learned to deal with some adversity," said Ruff. "We've battled through, you know, some real good situations. We've been up against it a couple times, and I think being a pretty young team for the most part, we've been able to respond when things haven't gone well, gone well inside games or maybe a game where we've been disappointed to bounce back and play a stronger game the next game."


LESS PRESSURE: The Sabres captured the Presidents' Trophy this year as the NHL's top regular-season team and Senators coach Bryan Murray is fine with conceding the role of favourite to them.

The Senators, no slouches themselves with 105 points during the year, had that status last season when the team's met in the second round and Ottawa lost in five games.

"I think in most areas from what I heard, we're the underdog," Murray said. "I certainly read one of the articles there that they're the best at every category, so that means that we're the underdog in my mind."

Count Lindy Ruff among the admirers of the Senators in the second half of the season.

"I look at their record in the last 40 games, it's as good as anybody's record in the league," said the Sabres coach. "They've been better. The last 40 games they were better than us. It's a pretty tight race the whole year long."


ZUBRUS FITS IN: The Buffalo Sabres are careful in the trades they make, preferring to draft and develop their players. They did their homework before picking up forward Dainius Zubrus at the trade deadline and he's fit in nicely.

"You can only know so much when you trade for a player," said said Sabres GM Darcy Regier. "I'll go to what Lindy said. I think that we put a tremendous emphasis on the quality of the person, and it matters a lot. ... If you get your dressing room right, it does an awful lot for what happens on the ice.

"And then beyond that, I think that Lindy has done a terrific job, the coaching staff has done a terrific job fitting him in. He's not playing his natural position or certainly not the position he played in Washington, and he has arguably gotten better with each game."


MAX IS BACK: Sabres coach Lindy Ruff is happy to have Maxim Afinogenov playing well again but he doesn't regret making the winger a healthy scratch in Game 4 the previous round when he was struggling.

"There were areas of his game that, you know, obviously disturbed me," said Ruff. "I'll say it again. It was probably the toughest decision I made in a playoff series, but there's some outlying factors that I'm not going to comment on right now that went into that decision.

"But what I saw in the last couple of games is Max is back to full form. He's skating and creating chances. He was using his speed. He was as good as he was for the most part during the year. So I think that we need him to play like that. We need that line to be a very dangerous line for us."


A YEAR LATER: The Sabres are better off for last year's experience in the Eastern Conference final, a seven-game loss to Carolina, figures Sabres forward Daniel Briere.

"I think we're better prepared than we were last year," said Briere. "I mean last year was a lot of guys, just first time around, we hadn't been in that position. You know, everybody knows about how the injuries were kind of affected us, where this year we're coming in, you know, having played two really good games against the Rangers and everybody little bit more experience and very healthy right now, so I think we're in a good position right now and we feel good about our chances."


OLD BUDDIES: The opposing coaches in the Eastern Conference final were once on the same team with the Florida Panthers, Bryan Murray as GM and Lindy Ruff as assistant coach.

"I like Bryan," said Ruff. "We had a great relationship when I worked for him, and he actually does have a pretty good sense of humour, but, you know, we had good success down there in Florida. We had a terrific run."

The Panthers reached the Cup final in 1995-96.

"I think the words that echo in my head, the one thing he did say when we went to the finals, 'Let's make sure we have fun and enjoy this because it doesn't happen very often,"' said Ruff. "And I think he's speaking from a voice of experience, that it is extremely tough to get there, whether you're a general manager, whether you're a coach, and we were a pretty tight-knit group down there when we went threw that whole process to get to the finals against Colorado."


with files from Chris Yzerman in Ottawa


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