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Drop the gloves during the playoffs with SI.com's writers in the NHL Cup Blog, a daily journal of hockey commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
11:39 PM ET, 5/05/06

Time to rebuild confidence

Posted by Michael Farber
There surely have been wilder games in the history of hockey than the bizarre 7-6 overtime Buffalo win in Ottawa Friday night, but they were all played outdoors with snowbanks for boards and a Labrador retriever in net.

To recap the madness, which was 61 minutes of Stephen King Meets Gary Bettman:
• The badly outplayed Sabres rallied from deficits five separate times.
• A goal was scored within 1:47 of the start of every period.
• Thirteen goals whizzed into the nets on 56 shots, which wasn't far off Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella's "25 percent rule" for John Grahame.
• The Sabres scored shorthanded with 1:37 left in regulation to tie the score, gave up a power play 24 seconds later, then again tied the score, with goalie Ryan Miller out of the net just 10 seconds or so from the end of the period.
• Chris Drury won it 18 seconds into overtime when Ottawa defenseman Anton Volchenkov, lugging the puck out of the zone, head up, unchecked, lost the puck on the fresh ice.

See. This might have been the only time in the history of the world there was a full moon inside an arena.

Although this might go down as the greatest heist in Ottawa outside of the goods and services tax slapped on Canadians, in the long run both teams came out losers. After the scariest performance in a hockey mask worn by someone other than Jason, neither the fancied Senators, with rookie Ray Emery subbing for the injured Dominik Hasek, nor the Sabres, who have been using their own rookie, Miller, can feel confident about riding their goalies deep into the playoffs.

The question now is how both teams rebuild their goalies' confidence for Game 2 on Monday. The task might be easier in Buffalo because Miller, who gave up too many juicy rebounds, did wind up with the win, as labored as it was. Miller, a Hobey Baker winner from Michigan State, was able to shrug off the game -- "Never been in one like this at any level," Miller said -- and simply will start back on a video tutorial on the weekend. Jim Corsi, the Buffalo goalie coach, is a former schoolteacher, which certainly helps. The low-key Corsi won't point out mistakes as much as lead Miller on a voyage of discovery, like all the good pedagogues do. Defenseman Jay McKee, who rooms with the goalie, said he knows Miller's ability to focus, which reassures the Sabres. Another defenseman, Brian Campbell, told me that Miller is driven to be Brodeur-esque. "We know how good he is when he's on top of his game," Campbell said.

Of course, coach Lindy Ruff has a fallback position if Miller, who had a rough patch in the middle of the Philadelphia series, falters. The Sabres backup is Martin Biron, an honest-to-goodness NHL goalie -- although one shy on playoff experience.

Ottawa doesn't have the luxury. Its backup, Mike Morrison, played just one game after being acquired at the trade deadline by the Senators. With the injured Hasek haunting this team like Banquo's ghost -- I've used that line before but gee, I love how it sounds -- this is Emery's team. Plan B has a strained adducter muscle and Plan C might as well be Plan Z. Emery is cool enough to rebound from this fiasco, but it will have to be a big bounce.
7:07 PM ET, 5/05/06

Making My Semifinal Picks

Posted by Allan Muir
It probably isn't very sporting of me to point out that, of the five SI.com writers who made pre-playoff predictions, I'm the only one to have both finalists still in the hunt after the first round. But now that it's out there in the open, I mock them with a Stewie Griffin-like "Ha!"

Clearly, I'm on top of my prognosticating game. So here's who will win the quarterfinal matchups:

Ottawa v. Buffalo
First, a shout out to all of you die-hard Sabres fans, perhaps the most aggrieved congregation of humans on this planet. No one jumps up faster to refute a perceived slight against your team than you guys, and I love you for it. Some day I'll manage to wade through all the mash notes you sent after that whole Tim Thomas/Ryan Miller thing. Promise.

So full credit where credit is due: The Sabres were marvelous in their methodical dismantling of the Flyers in the first round. They were everything you'd want a team to be in the playoffs: fast and disciplined, with balanced scoring, a commitment to defense and solid goaltending.

Problem is, they're about to run into a buzzsaw. As good as the Sabres are, the Sens have an answer at every position. The battle will be close in net -- I give a slight nod to Miller over Ottawa's Ray Emery -- but the Senators are just as fast, just as disciplined, with better scoring and a bigger, more effective blueline. That's enough of an edge.

It'll go six, maybe seven, but Ottawa will move on. Buffalo fans, feel free to check my regular column for the address where to send your hate mail.

Carolina v. New Jersey
Apparently, there are a lot of folks around hockey who think New Jersey's 15-game winning streak is a sign that they've taken on the invulnerability of Superman. They haven't, and the Canes are about to expose that.

Cam Ward has the unflappable confidence to duel with Martin Brodeur and come out on top. Rod Brind'Amour looks as though he'll chew through a brick wall to put his team over the top. And you just know Doug Weight and Mark Recchi will make a bigger contribution than they did against the Habs. Canes in five.

Anaheim v. Colorado
After stifling Calgary's anemic offense at the back end of their series, Anaheim's justified in feeling good about their defense. With Sakic, Hejduk, Wolski, Blake and Tanguay, Colorado's got about five more bullets in the chamber than the Flames could ever hope to muster, but it won't be enough. Ilya Bryzgalov will outshine Jose Theodore, and the Ducks will take it in six.

San Jose v. Edmonton
After the Sabres/Sens, this should be the next most compelling series, if for no other reason than the chance to watch the Chris Pronger/Joe Thornton pas de deux every other night.

The Oilers are a gritty, competitive bunch, but like the Nashville Predators before them, they'll find the one-two punch of Thornton and Patrick Marleau impossible to contain. Without the defensive depth of a team like the Senators, Edmonton will have to pick its poison. Either way, they're headed for the big sleep. Sharks in five.
5:53 PM ET, 5/05/06

Sabres are hardly an underdog

Posted by Yi-Wyn Yen
You can't blame crafty Sabres coach Lindy Ruff for playing the underdog card. Two weeks into the playoffs, being an underdog has worked out well for Edmonton, Colorado, Anaheim and San Jose as they took out the top four Western Conference seeds in the first round. By calling his team the underdogs and the Senators the favorites, Ruff is hoping to take the pressure off the Sabres and gain an edge over Ottawa.

But is Ruff really fooling anyone with his underdog warcry? It may have worked six months ago when the Senators won their first three games against the Sabres during the regular season, outscoring them 21-5. But something happened to the Sabres after that. They found their moxie and came back to take three of their last five meetings with the Sens.

If anything, the Sabres are heading into the Ottawa series with an advantage over their opponents. Buffalo is still riding high with big confidence from its opening round series against the Flyers, which ended with a 7-1 stampede in Game 6. And while Ottawa leans on its top three scorers -- Martin Havlat (six goals, four assists), Dany Heatley (two goals, eight assists) and Jason Spezza (two goals, eight assists) -- six Sabres forwards from three lines scored three or more goals apiece in the first round.

Some critics argue that the Senators have a higher-profile, more mobile defense with Zdeno Chara, Wade Redden and Chris Phillips. Buffalo can counter with the return of consistent defenseman Teppo Numminen, top shotblocker Jay McKee and superb checker Brian Campbell (see replay of Flyers center R.J. Umberger in Game 1). Buffalo's biggest advantage is where it matters most: in net. I like fiesty, athletic Ryan Miller more than Ottawa's Ray Emery. Miller has allowed a stingy 2.02 goals per game compared to Emery's 2.62. Both rookie goaltenders lack the experience of going deep into the playoffs, but Miller, the former Michigan State goalie, faced Michigan in front of a world-record crowd of 74,554.

Buffalo as series underdogs? Hardly.
4:36 PM ET, 5/05/06

Niedermayer deserves the Norris

Posted by Tom Layberger
On Thursday, the NHL released the names of the finalists for the major awards. As far as the Norris Trophy is concerned, the finalists represent a veteran cast from the Western Conference: each player has at least 13 seasons of NHL service and is no younger than 32 years of age. With all respect to the fine campaigns registered by Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Zubov, the player who had the most dramatic affect on his team was Scott Niedermayer.

After finally winning an elusive Norris in 2003-04, the 32-year-old Niedermayer has a chance to make it two in a row after enjoying a fine first season out West.

The way Niedermayer controlled the tempo for much of Game 7 against the Flames on the road is not unlike how he piloted the blue line for the Mighty Ducks all season. With Sandis Ozolinsh dropping out of the picture in November, Niedermayer, who recorded a career-high 63 points, became the sole go-to-guy for production on defense. All the while, he was helping fellow rearguard and rookie Francois Beauchemin become comfortable with a heavy workload and an eventual force.

Though it helps to have a Norris winner behind the bench in the person of coach Randy Carlyle, there is a difference in the relationships between coach/player and player/player. Niedermayer played no small part helping bring along Beauchemin after his early-season acquisition from Columbus, as well as Joe DiPenta, who had appeared in only three NHL games prior to this season.

Beyond the defensive zone, Niedermayer was a calming influence on the club as a whole. During the regular season, Anaheim had 14 players suit up who were either rookies or had no more than one full season of NHL experience. Niedermayer boasts three Stanley Cups and four Cup finals appearances.

The intangibles as well as the tangibles that No. 27 brings to the locker room and the ice have played a huge part in the Ducks' success and will continue to do so in the their hopes of a return visit to the final round.

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