Sabres, Flyers deliver exciting start to series

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:05 AM ET

BUFFALO -- It's as if the fellas in New York were keen to give the new rules a spin.

"Boys," someone said, "whaddasay we put a green, fast team against a gritty old one and see what gets called and what we get?"

What you get, it turns out, is an electric, often frantic opening game of the Eastern Conference quarter-finals.

Score it 3-2 for the Buffalo Sabres over the Philadelphia Flyers thanks to an overtime winner 7:31 into the second overtime on a tip-in goal from Daniel Briere.

It was Briere's 14th shot on goal. The shots finished 58-32 for Buffalo.

"The good thing is," said Mike Knuble, a Flyers' goalscorer on the night, "they're probably as tired as we are."

Briere's goal came on a delayed penalty, which would have been the 11th assessed in overtime just in case you thought the officials would stop calling them in extra time.

There were waves of action, tons of great saves from the Flyers' Robert Esche and Sabres' Ryan Miller, and plenty of hitting including a thunderous hit by Brian Campbell on Flyers forward R.J. Umberger in the first overtime.

"I thought we gained a lot of experience," said Briere. "I was surprised by how we kept our composure."

The Sabres' defence pinches more than a bar full of Shriners at closing time. You can time Derek Roy, Tim Connolly, Dmitri Kalinin, Daniel Briere, Campbell, Jochen Hecht and Maxim Afinogenov with a radar gun. Afinogenov was particularly mesmerizing but most everyone took turns churning past the Flyers defence.

Except for the second half of the second and the third periods the Sabres were a better club. So great was Buffalo's dominance in the third period that the Flyers couldn't get a shot on Miller for the first 13 minutes. Didn't matter much though as Simon Gagne scored with 1:51 left to send the game into overtime at 2-2.

But when allowed to slow their opponents and grind it out -- and you can question whether the new rules permit that -- the Flyers were more than the Sabres could handle. Their first goal with three minutes left in the second was the result of a lengthy campaign in the Buffalo zone as Mike Knuble ripped a rebound past Miller. Gagne's game-tying goal was built along similar lines.

"They're a big hockey club," Campbell said. "We've got to keep using our speed."

Connolly and Jay McKee lifted the Sabres into a 2-0 lead that seemed invincible given the Sabres' dominance on the shot clock. The Sabres outshot Philadelphia 41-21 in regulation.

Even if they get by Buffalo, the Flyers probably won't get far and not for lack of trying.

Their defence includes a player performing on one knee (Hatcher) and another on one hip (Rathje). The Flyers are also without a top performer in Kim Johnsson. All those factors make the Sabres' abundant speed especially lethal.

Peter Forsberg's groin injury also threatens to take him out at any time. How badly he is hurt was evident in the first period when Ales Kotalik hooked Forsberg off the puck just in time for Connolly to breeze in, grab the disc and slip it past Esche. A healthy Peter Forsberg would shuck off Kotalik like a horse swatting a fly and even injured, he managed to often control the puck near the Sabres' crease.

The Flyers' most inspirational forward, Keith Primeau, is happy just to be able to fly without kick-starting his post-concussion syndrome symptoms.

Other than that, the Flyers are good to go.

Esche struggled with his emotions all night. In the second period, he used his blocker to deliver a punch to Sabres forward Jason Pominville that was worthy of the WWE.

You got the feeling that instead of shoving the Flyers over the cliff, the Sabres spent the night shouldering a boulder up a mountain.

It goes to show you, the tough guys, they don't die so easy.


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