BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Before coach Lindy Ruff gave his Buffalo
Sabres a rare two-day break in the midst of the playoffs, he left
them with one simple message.
"I told them it was well deserved," Ruff said Monday.
It's a much-needed one, too, for a Sabres team that's a little
banged up and can use all the rest it can get in preparing to face
the second-seeded Hurricanes in a best-of-seven Eastern Conference
final series that opens Saturday at Carolina.
The fourth-seeded Sabres, who resume practice on Tuesday, are
missing two key regulars -- center Tim Connolly (possible
concussion) and defenseman Dmitri Kalinin (ankle), both not
expected to be ready for the start of the series.
Buffalo also has several players that can use a break,
particularly defenseman Jay McKee, credited with blocking 34 shots
in 11 playoff games. Defensive partners Toni Lydman and Henrik
Tallinder can also rest after averaging a team-high 21-plus minutes
Then there's Ryan Miller, whose 302 saves and 2.25 goals-against
average rank second among goaltenders with 10 or appearances this
"We asked a lot of things from them," Ruff said of his team's
effort so far. "Two days off is good."
The Sabres are coming off an emotionally draining series against
Ottawa, in which they eliminated the top-seeded Senators in five
games -- three wins coming in overtime, including the
series-clinching 3-2 victory on Saturday.
The Hurricanes advanced after knocking off New Jersey with a 4-1
win in Game 5 on Sunday.
It's the first time the two franchises will be meeting in the
Carolina won the regular-season series 3-1, including a shootout
victory. But the Sabres did win the last meeting, 4-0 at Carolina
on the final day of the regular season, preventing the Hurricanes
from clinching first place in the East.
Unlike the Senators, who proved to be more flash than grit, the
Hurricanes are expected to present the Sabres a tougher challenge
in a matchup featuring two teams with similar opportunistic
offensive styles and sound defensive systems.
Buffalo and Carolina are both 8-3 this postseason and both won
52 games in the regular season. The Sabres, with 43 playoff goals,
might have the edge on the Hurricanes, who scored 32, but both
teams have allowed only 27.
Both goalies, Miller (8-3) and Carolina's Cam Ward (8-2), are
rookies, and are getting help from the players in front of them.
Carolina has been credited with 202 blocked shots and the Sabres
have 195. Only Edmonton, with 215 also in 11 games, has registered
more this postseason.
Oh, and here's another similarity, the Sabres and Hurricanes
were both discounted for being too inexperienced and lacking
big-name talent to be considered Stanley Cup contenders when the
season began in October.
Not any longer.
"I don't think there's any sneaking up on anybody now," Ruff
said. "They beat a very good hockey club. I think a lot of people
didn't anticipate Carolina getting by Jersey. But they got the job
Few expected the Sabres, making their first postseason
appearance since 2001, to get this far. But Buffalo, which
eliminated Philadelphia in six games in the first round, is
continuing to prove to be for real.
Hurricanes captain Rod Brind'Amour paid due respect to Buffalo
shortly after celebrating the win over New Jersey.
"That's the team to beat," Brind'Amour told the Raleigh News
and Observer. "We predicted them to win, and it's going to be a
heck of a matchup."
"That's nice of Rod," Ruff said, when informed of
Brind'Amour's comments. "But I think they're a pretty confident
squad on the inside, too."