<
>

Sabres feeling more comfortable with their No. 1 status

BUFFALO -- Listen to folks around here tell the story, and you'd think the Buffalo Sabres escaped from the first round of the NHL playoffs with just the clothes on their backs as opposed to dispatching the very ordinary New York Islanders in five games.

But that's the interesting thing about the playoffs; sometimes it's not the team's game plan, but the skin they're wearing. And for the Buffalo Sabres, Presidents' Trophy winners and many observers' pick to advance at least to the Stanley Cup finals, the skin they're wearing this spring is vastly different than any they've worn in many years.

It's the skin of a winner.

"That's really been the first time where we were the team that was supposed to win," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff acknowledged Tuesday, a day before the Sabres will open the second round against the red-hot New York Rangers.

"It wasn't supposed to be close. We were supposed to be better in every area. The Islanders weren't getting a lot of credit," he added. "I think that pressure kind of mounted and it was a different place for a lot of our players."

Funny how two teams can arrive at the same place in the second round by almost identical routes yet come bearing such different perceptions.

The Sabres split the first two games at home against the eighth-seeded Islanders, who snuck into the playoffs on the very last afternoon of the regular season by virtue of a shootout victory over New Jersey. Buffalo then won three in a row, but didn't look exactly pretty doing it. In the final game, the Sabres were up 4-1, but very nearly choked that away and had to rely on a sensational last-second save by Ryan Miller to prevent overtime.

"It's such a different animal," being the favorite and faltering, Ruff said. "You start asking 50 questions and you've only got 40 answers. And then you're facing it -- that if you lose another game, you're thinking, 'Holy crap, this thing may be over.'"

Any team is happy to advance to the second round, but that relief is felt more acutely by teams that have stumbled over that first hurdle. The Detroit Red Wings, for instance, talked of the relief they felt at dispatching Calgary in the first round after being ousted in last spring's opener at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers. Likewise, the Ottawa Senators vs. the Penguins.

"I think we were in that category," Ruff said. When the Sabres got to the brink of closing out the series, "we just wanted it to be over, but we didn't handle how we wanted to get it over very well. But we've addressed that."

Sabres defenseman Jaroslav Spacek was member of last season's Edmonton team and understands the different dynamics at play in that first round, depending on the perception of a team's capabilities.

"Probably the biggest pressure is on the No. 1 seed," Spacek said Tuesday. "There's lots of pressure on us. Maybe that's why we didn't play a couple of games great and just survived it." Now, though, the pressure is off, or at least minimized, he added.

The Sabres' new skin, that of the favorite, is almost the diametric opposite of the New York Rangers. The Rangers have advanced to the second round for the first time since 1997 and have a swagger that suggests they are a team with little to lose and a whole lot to gain.

They crushed the Atlanta Thrashers in four games and have compiled a 17-3-4 record in their past 24 games behind the other-worldly goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist, tenacious checking and opportunistic scoring.

Coach Tom Renney has already told reporters in New York he doesn't believe the Sabres are the "cream of the crop" in the conference.

"They're certainly one of the eight teams left and a good one. I'm not going to suggest I don't want to give them credit, but we're where we are because we belong here, too," Renney said before the team left New York for Buffalo, where they will play Wednesday and Friday.

Further, Sean Avery told The New York Post he's looking forward to "hurting" the Sabres.

"I'm going to hurt them. I'm going to hit them. I'm going to be in their face as much as I can," Avery told The Post in Tuesday's editions. "Each check is going to be a little bit harder."

Ruff seemed unconcerned and may have indeed welcomed it given the respectful tone the Islanders brought to the first round.

"They can think whatever they want. They're going to have their own thoughts," he said. "They should feel good about themselves."

While the Rangers finished 19 points in arrears of the Sabres during the regular season and didn't register a victory in four tries (they didn't play after Dec. 1), there is an interesting dynamic at play here. The Sabres prefer to play teams on an equal footing, while the Rangers are trying to prove they belong.

"I think the worst of the pressure was in the first round because you're 1 against 8 and everyone just expects you to walk through them and basically destroy the other team," offered Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere, who is tied for the team lead with five points. "Now, as you move on, it's the best teams that are left standing and it just gets tougher and tougher. The difference is not as big as you move on and I think the pressure goes away a little bit with each and every round."

Here's the interesting thing about the Sabres. A season ago, they were never short on motivators. Even though they blazed through the first half of the regular season, many observers believed they would run out of gas. Some believed they would be physically overwhelmed by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs, but instead the Sabres destroyed them with an offensive tidal wave. Buffalo was believed to be too inexperienced to overtake the Eastern Conference leaders from Ottawa, and yet the Sabres swarmed the Senators and dispatched them in five.

This season has been slightly different. They were expected to be among the league's top teams and they were, leading the division and the conference from wire to wire and taking the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top regular-season team. In doing so, they perhaps found motivation difficult to come by especially late in the season. Having stutter-stepped through the first round, the question is whether they can find that motivation once again.

"We know there's a lot of guys that that's what they're looking for. They just want to move on and they want to keep playing," Briere said. "In that sense, I'm not worried. I'm not worried that there's a guy who's just waiting to go home or a guy that doesn't really care because he can't wait to go to the World Championships. I'm convinced we don't have that in our room. So that's why we're as confident as we can be."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.