Buffalo vs. Carolina

Ottawa Senators Chris Kelly gets pushed to the ice by Buffalo Sabres Henrik Tallinder (L) and Toni...

Ottawa Senators Chris Kelly gets pushed to the ice by Buffalo Sabres Henrik Tallinder (L) and Toni Lydman (R) during the third period of game one of round two NHL playoff action at the Scotiabank Place in Ottawa on Friday, May 5, 2006. (SUN/Sean Kilpatrick)

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Because the Carolina Hurricanes and Buffalo Sabres both wrapped up their previous series in a hurry, their coaches have had plenty of time to prepare their game plans for the Eastern Conference final.

Curiously enough, neither of them -- Carolina's Peter Laviolette and Buffalo's Lindy Ruff -- used any of that time preparing press briefings on the subject.

But it's safe to assume they'll both try to institute some variations they feel might be productive.

The Hurricanes have noticed, for instance, that the Ottawa Senators repeatedly tried to force plays up the middle against the Sabres. In most cases, the Senators would have been better advised to take the outside route and go along the boards.

Had they done so, they might actually have suffered a facial nick or two, so they opted for the easier route, only to discover that the Sabres can collapse on the middle as well as any team in hockey. When they do so, they often create the dreaded neutral-zone turnover.

The Sabres have some high acceleration forwards -- Maxim Afinogenov, for instance, is probably faster after two steps than any player in the world -- and they attack in a hurry.

The Hurricanes are not afraid to go along the boards. They feel that even though they have used their speed to take advantage of the new rules, they would be thriving even if the old bump-and-grind system remained in place.

Once the Sabres get into the Carolina zone, they'll again find a change from the Ottawa series.

The Hurricanes don't have any great defencemen -- no Wade Redden and no Zdeno Chara -- but they do have seven veterans (though Laviolette probably will use only six today) who share ice time fairly equally and stabilize the game.

As a result, the Sabres won't be making any serious attempts to get favourable offensive matchups.

For one thing, they're such a balanced team up front that Ruff rarely tries to match forward lines. Furthermore, because there's not a lot to choose among the Carolina defencemen, he'll just take what comes.

As for his own defensive matchups, he'll probably try to get the highly underrated pairing of Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder out against Eric Staal.

To counter this, Laviolette has the option of double-shifting Staal, using him both on the wing and at centre. He has done that on occasion, but in recent games, because Andrew Ladd has looked good, and because Ray Whitney is steadily returning to full strength, Staal's ice time has dropped a bit.

Both teams have been looking at videotapes trying to find a flaw in the opposition's rookie goalie. There aren't any.

Carolina's Cam Ward has put out a few big rebounds on occasion, but other than that, he always appears to be in control. Ryan Miller likes to drop quickly, as do most of today's goalies, but he's tall and still can cover much of the net.

Even so, look for the 'Canes point men to shoot high while their forwards crowd the net. There may be some Carolina forwards losing teeth in this series.

The Sabres also will be trying to find ways to keep the Carolina power play, the best in the playoffs, under wraps.

Their penalty-killers are aggressive, but the Hurricanes are aware of that. They know that the Sabres will try to pressure the puck, but they also know that every time a penalty-killer comes close to the puck, a seam has opened somewhere.

They've been watching tapes in the hope that they'll be able to make the most of that knowledge.

In Carolina's case, there are no concerns about the Sabres exploiting a serious flaw. That doesn't mean they're over-confident, it just means that feel they can compete in every aspect of the game.

The Sabres, however, are worried about faceoffs. With Tim Connolly out and with Rod Brind'Amour taking the key draws for Carolina, the Sabres could be over-matched.

And no matter how much manipulating the coaches do, that could wind up being the most important factor.


Videos

Photos