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This is where real hockey begins

Ian CroppVail CO, Colorado
Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff protests the reviewed call on a save made by New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist near the end of the tthird period of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinal hockey game Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at Madison Square Garden in New York. The Rangers won the game 2-1 to even the best-of-seven-games series at 2-2. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
AP | AP

Say hello to the New York State champion Buffalo Sabres.After being the Islanders in the first round and the Rangers in the second, the Sabres claimed the Empire State title (not to mention the tristate crown, thanks to Ottawa’s ousting of New Jersey). But nobody in the Sabres locker room or all of Sabres nation (kind of like the world-wide Red Sox network, but a bit more crazy) will be happy with anything less than Lord Stanley’s hardware.Ottawa laughed another team onto the golf course, the Ducks are still waiting for a real game and Detroit has been drinking from the fountain of youth. At this stage of the playoffs, hockey fans can rejoice. They don’t need to watch anymore mediocre hockey. That’s not to say these playoffs haven’t been interesting. Up to this point, individual playoff games have been entertaining. But now is the time when full series’ will get entertaining.

Detroit (1) vs. Anaheim (2)Despite a roster that has baby boomers and the last living Canadian World War I veteran, Detroit did its best Richard Dreyfus impression and caught Jaws. San Jose, one of the most offensively potent teams and a popular pick to go all the way, looked more like a school of catfish chugging along the bottom of Ron Wilson’s aquarium. The Red Wings were somewhat responsible for the Sharks’ loss, however, and this should put a scare into the Anaheim Ducks.It’s been so long since the Ducks last played that I don’t remember their opponent in the last round. My sources tell me it was the Roberto Luongo Canucks. And I think they got a first-round bye. Oh wait, they played the Minnesota Wild. Anaheim has been the most dominant team thus far in the playoffs, albeit against two of the more underwhelming teams. They’ll finally get a test and will need to be more discipline then they’ve been so far. The Ducks love to play physical, and wind up in the penalty box as a result. Detroit showed they can play a physical, and are dangerous with the man advantage.The Ducks’ offense overpowers the Red Wings’ offense on paper. Teemu Selane has had one of his best seasons since netting 76 goals in his rookie year. Ryan Getzlaf, Samuel Pahlsson and Andy McDonald have all been solid so far. The only problem is that Anaheim doesn’t roll four lines. Combine that with the fact that Chris Pronger never leaves the ice, and the Ducks could get into some trouble.

Detroit lost its second-best two-way defenseman in Mathieu Schneider. But Nicklas Lindstrom and AARP spokesman Chris Chelios were stellar in the final two games of the Sharks’ series, like they have been all playoffs. Up front, the Red Wings may not have the prolific scorers like the Ducks, but they have guys who come up in the clutch. Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper, who were one the team when it was still part of the Original Six, always come up big in the playoffs. With a combined three points so far, they are overdue. Dominik Hasek still has a slinky for a spine, and can steal a game or two for Detroit on his own. J.S. Giguere will need to be the better goalie if the Ducks wants to make it to the big show again. It’s worth noting that Detroit’s Mike Babcock came within one of winning a cup with the Ducks in 2002. This series is his team’s to win.Detroit in sevenBuffalo (1) vs. Ottawa (4).Some have called for the Senators to win in 5. Some have called for the Sabres in 7. Others predict a repeat of Bush v. Gore in Florida.Ottawa has been unflappable thus far in the playoffs. But can they keep it up? Years and years of postseason choking demons are going to be floating around their lockers.

Buffalo has been mediocre at times and brilliant at others. Anyone who has watched this team during the regular season knows how dangerous they can be. What should scare Ottawa is that the Sabres have yet to put together 60 great minutes.This is the third fourth time these teams have met in the playoffs, with the Sabres holding a 3-0 advantage. In 1996-97, the No. 2 Sabres won 4-3 in the first round. In 1998-99, the No. 7 Sabres blanked the Sens, then went on to lose in six in the Stanley Cup Finals. Last year, only three points separated the teams, but the Sens were the No. 1 seed and the Sabres No. 4. Buffalo beat Ottawa, 4-1 in a series where every game was decided by one goal, and three went to overtime.As if the three previous series didn’t provide enough animosity, there was a regular season game late this year that drew plenty of bad blood. Sensators forward Chris Neil blindsided Buffalo captain Chris Drury a few seconds after Drury took a shot. Drury’s slammed his head on the ice and missed more than a week with a concussion. After the hit, the Sabres coach, Lindy Ruff, sent out his fighters. Bryan Murray, the Sensators coach, sent out his No. 1 line. The Sabres started a fight, in which their tough guy Andrew Peters ended up fighting Sensators goalie Ray Emery – kind of unnecessary, but totally awesome (to see footage of the fight, go to youtube.com and type in, “Sabres Senators Fight”). Both teams claim to have the incident out of their memories, although I have a feeling that when the puck drops tonight, they’ll remember. Unlike any series thus far, this one will feature a lot more open-ice hockey. These teams are fast, can move the puck well, and love to score. Last round, if either of these teams score four goals, you knew they were going to win. It’s a toss up this time.I could write an opus, but I’ll spare you. Here’s what I think will be the keys of the series:

-Ottawa’s first line has been unbelievable, with Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza netting 16 goals and totaling for 37 points in the first two rounds. The rest of the offense has been good. They’ll need to be great in this series if Buffalo’s top defensive pair of Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder, which did a good job of shutting down the Rangers’ top line, controls the Sens’ brass.-Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek, the great Austrian of winter who doesn’t wear skis, is the team’s biggest offensive weapon. When he goes in front of the net, good things happen for the Sabres. The Sabres’ Tim Connolly has show flashes of brilliance since returning from a year-long concussion that he sustained against the Sensators ast year in the playoffs. Now he needs to score a game-winner or two.-Blueliners can’t just play defense. When the defensemen hop into the rush, goals come in bunches. Buffalo’s Brian Campbell and Ottawa’s Tom Preissing could turn the tide for their teams .If you love hockey, this is the series to watch. If you don’t know much about hockey, this is the series to watch. Sabres in 7Sports Writer Ian Cropp didn’t throw his cell phone this last series – he threw other, bigger objects. He can be reached at 748-2935 or icropp@vaildaily.com.


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