Stanley Cup Finals Preview - Buffalo vs. NY Islanders

Stanley Cup Finals Preview - Buffalo vs. NY Islanders

Stanley Cup Finals Preview - Buffalo vs. NY Islanders

April 10th, 2007
(Sports Network) - After finishing one victory shy of a Stanley Cup finals berth last season, the Buffalo Sabres were able to regroup and put together the most successful regular season in franchise history.

The Sabres came flying out of the gate this season, becoming just the second team in NHL history to begin a year with 10 straight wins. Buffalo cooled off somewhat from that white-hot start, but it still managed to run away with the Northeast Division title, lock up the conference's top seed for the first time since 1980 and win the franchise's first Presidents' Trophy.

The main thing that makes the Sabres such a dangerous club is the amount of scoring depth they are able to throw at opponents. Buffalo had seven players score 60 or more points this season if you include Dainius Zubrus, who had 60 points exactly in 79 combined games with Washington and the Sabres.

Leading the way for the powerful Sabres, who led the NHL with 308 goals scored this year, was the diminutive, but prolific Daniel Briere. The 5-9, 177-pound centerman had the best statistical season of his career, notching a personal best 95 points by registering 32 goals and 63 assists.

As if having Briere to anchor your top line isn't enough, the Sabres are also fortunate enough to have Chris Drury as the center on their second line. Drury was second on the team with 37 goals and also added 32 assists. The native of Trumbull, Connecticut also boasts significant playoff experience, having won a Stanley Cup title as a member of the Colorado Avalanche in 2001.

Briere and Drury are the two most recognizable players on the Sabres, but Thomas Vanek also emerged as a force this year in his second NHL season. The 23-year-old Austrian winger quietly paced Buffalo with 43 goals, was second on the team with 84 points and was first on the club with a plus-47 rating.

In addition to the trio of players mentioned above the Sabres also receive significant scoring from wingers Jason Pominville (68 points) and Maxim Afinogenov (61) and center Derek Roy (63).

Another positive for the Sabres has been the evolution of goaltender Ryan Miller into one of the best backstops in the NHL. Miller became the full-time starter last season and Buffalo has been a better club because of the switch. This year Miller was 40-16-6 with a 2.73 goals against average and was the starting netminder for this year's Eastern Conference All-Star team.

In terms of blueline talent, the Sabres rely on Brian Campbell (6g, 42a) to move the puck up ice and quarterback the power play, while Dmitri Kalinin (7g, 22a) is becoming the team's top all-round defenseman.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS (8th seed, East)

REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 40-30-12

2006 PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.

The New York Islanders didn't exactly have a smooth road to the postseason this year, but the important thing is they managed to somehow finish in the top eight seeds.

Heading into the final week of the regular season it appeared that either Montreal or Toronto would be the eighth seed in the East, but the Islanders foiled both teams' plans by winning their final four games of the season to finish one point ahead of Toronto for the last playoff berth.

The final touch on the postseason push was an overtime win in New Jersey on the last day of the regular season, although that victory was tainted by some for the fact that the Devils chose to give future Hall-of-Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur a rare day off.

The late-season surge was made even more improbable by the fact that the Isles had to play their final seven games without franchise goaltender Rick DiPietro, who is still sidelined indefinitely due to post-concussion symptoms.

DiPietro's injury would seem to spell doom for New York, but Wade Dubielewicz became a hero down the stretch going 4-1-0 in five starts as the replacement. The Isles' savior was considered to be the club's third goaltender just a few weeks back, but Mike Dunham played so poorly when DiPietro initially went out that the switch to Dubielewicz was implemented.

Dubielewicz has never seen action in an NHL playoff game so it will be interesting to see how he reacts to the pressure.

The Islanders have a pair of high-scoring wingers in Jason Blake and Ryan Smyth, who was acquired in a deadline deal with Edmonton. The 33-year-old Blake had an exceptional year on Long Island, as he registered career highs in goals (40) and points (69).

Smyth had been the face of the franchise in Edmonton, but was dealt for a few prospects after his contract negotiations with the Oilers fell through just minutes before the deadline. Smyth, who had 68 points (36g, 32a) in 71 combined games with Edmonton and the Isles, provides New York with a player who will do just about anything to score goals around the net.

Alexei Yashin had a rebirth of sorts this year, but the only problem was he was injured far too often to make a more significant impact. Yashin registered 50 points (18g, 32a) in 58 games and has the added responsibility of wearing the "C" on his jersey.

The Isles have a few offensive-minded defenseman in Tom Poti and Marc-Andre Bergeron, but lacks a top-notch blueliner who can make plays at both ends of the ice.

MATCHUP

The Islanders needed to muster just about everything they had to make it this far and will have to continue that level of determination if they want their stay to last more than a few games.

Buffalo has been anxious to start the postseason for a long time and isn't likely to let the upstart Islanders catch them off guard. The Sabres have far too many offensive weapons at their disposal and head coach Lindy Ruff is a master at getting all his scorers enough playing time.

The Sabres had an excellent regular season against the Isles this year, winning three of the four matchups between the clubs.

Last season everybody made the mistake of dismissing Edmonton in last year's playoffs and the Oilers wound up winning the Western Conference title. Don't expect that to happen with the Islanders this year because the Sabres are eager and capable of making quick work of their first-round opponents.

That's not so much a knock on New York, but rather the realization that Buffalo should be disappointed with anything less than a Stanley Cup title this year.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Sabres in 5.

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