NHL Playoffs: Rangers-Sabres Preview
by Robert Ferringo - 04/25/2007
Sometimes a guy just needs to know when to keep his mouth shut. For New York Rangers coach Tom Renney and wing Sean Avery that time was right before heading into a hostile arena to take on the best team in hockey.
Renney made a statement this week essentially saying that he wasn't ready to concede that the Buffalo Sabres - winner's of the President's Cup for the regular season's best record - were the "cream of the crop" in the National Hockey League. The comment was made just days prior to their Eastern Conference semifinal series, which commences tonight at 7 p.m. in HSBC Arena in Buffalo.
Renney's claim was kind of minor. And if he hadn't backed off the comments yesterday I would've thought it was no big deal. But what Avery said was, well, a different matter.
"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 said earlier this week in published reports. "Each check is going to be a little bit harder."
If Avery's goal was to get Buffalo's attention, I'm sure it worked. Now the winger and his mates have to back it up on the ice. New York was swept by the Sabres this season, have lost four of five in HSBC Arena, and are just 4-11-1 against their intrastate rivals since the start of 2002.
However, the last time these clubs met was in early December and they are certainly two different squads now. The Sabres developed into the No. 1 scoring team in hockey and posted the most wins (53) of anyone in the league. The Rangers have morphed into the hottest team in hockey, posting a 17-3-4 mark in their last 24 games and outscoring Atlanta 17-6 in their first round sweep of the Thrashers.
New York has gone on such a vicious tear by becoming a brutish, beastly version of the Rangers. They play like angry polar bears in the arctic, hopped up on vodka and red bull and searching out prey to destroy in a brutal, bloody and instinctual way. What Avery said was less a threat and more a warning to the sharp and skillful Sabres: watch out before we feast on your flesh like we did those soft-ass Thrashers!
The Rangers most decidedly have the edge when it comes to grinding defense. Their unit ranked ninth in the NHL this season in goals allowed (2.6) versus a Sabres D that was 13th at 2.9 goals against per game. Buffalo was just 23rd in shots against while the Rangers were sixth, while New York managed five shutouts to Buffalo's two.
That being said, the Sabres are the most talented offensive team in hockey. All four of their lines can victimize an unsuspecting goalie and they averaged 3.6 goals per outing. Also, Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller has a much more proven playoff track record (15-7, 2.3 GAA) than New York net minder Henrik Lundqvist (4-3, 2.7).
Oh, and there's the fact that the Sabres are a stellar 67-33 in their last 100 against the Eastern Conference.
An interesting subplot to watch for, and one that could ultimately decide the series, is special teams. And it's an area the Rangers have an advantage in. New York's power play is No. 8 in the league, cashing in at a 18.5-percent clip, and its penalty kill is No. 12 at 83.8 percent. Buffalo is 17th in power play (17.4 percent) and 20th in penalty killing (81.3 percent). Their stats against one another this season support those numbers. The Rangers were 7-for-24 (28 percent) with an advantage while the Rangers were 4-for-22 (18 percent).
The Rangers are a gruff team with some skilled veterans. They can grind out wins and play better defense than the Sabres. But don't make the mistake of thinking that Buffalo is soft. Atlanta? They were soft. But I believe that the Sabres can get gritty and dirty - especially after being prodded by Avery. Also, if the officials decide to call a tighter series because of all of the attention that Avery's comments have garnered nationally that clearly plays right into the hands of the faster, more dexterous Sabres.
The fact of the matter is that whichever team you back will likely depend on what you value more: the hot team or the proven winner. Buffalo has been better over the past two seasons while New York has been devastating over the past month. So longevity or momentum? That is the question.
The Sabres have been instilled as a -175 favorite to win Game 1 and the total is at 5.5. Buffalo is also priced at -210 to win the series and the Rangers at +170.
Game 1 Trends:
The Rangers are just 26-60-6 in their last 92 road games against a team with a winning percentage above .600.
The Sabres are 38-16 in their past 54 home games.
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