Buffalo is where Sens got it right

DON BRENNAN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:24 AM ET

It is a key landmark along the Senators' road out of the slums.

A place they can point to and say, "Hey, this is where we turned it around."

The HSBC Arena in Buffalo, home of the Sabres, location of where they begin the Eastern Conference final tomorrow, pivotal spot in a Senators season gone good.

Ottawa was 6-10-1 when it arrived in the Queen City to take on one of the best teams in the NHL Nov. 15.

Ray Emery was returning from a wrist injury. Martin Gerber, who had lost three of the previous four, was headed for a spot on the end of the bench.

And the Senators were starting a rally.

Chris Neil, Jason Spezza, Peter Schaefer and Chris Phillips (with a loooong empty-netter) all scored. Emery stopped 27 shots and the Senators won 4-2.

The next day, owner Eugene Melnyk dispelled all rumours -- including those that had Pat Quinn and Ken Hitchcock coming to town as saviours -- and gave Bryan Murray and John Muckler a vote of confidence.

His coach and GM, Melnyk said, were in for the duration.

"Any time the owner is involved," Murray said yesterday when asked about Melnyk addressing the media via conference call, "it's beneficial."

Not only do players appreciate seeing the owner's interest, Murray said, but Melnyk's "comments made us feel like we had suffered nothing more than a couple of losses."

"That was a big accomplishment," Murray added of the victory in Buffalo. "We were a little fragile, to say the least, at that time. We were uptight, and it had a big impact on what happened afterwards."

The Senators went 8-2 after Melnyk stepped forward. From there, they struggled for a couple of more weeks, then went on a tear that saw them win 21-of-28 games.

They have slipped slightly, but never come down from those heights.

The Senators were 5-2-1 against the Sabres this season, a record that includes a 6-5 victory they posted Feb. 24 in their last meeting against Lindy Ruff's troops.

The Sabres will be seeing a different Ottawa team than they did that night when the two hook up for the start of the East final tomorrow, Murray said.

"We're a better team than the last time we played the Sabres," said Murray. "I know that for a fact.

"A number of players have taken their game to a different level since then. (Wade) Redden, (Joe) Corvo ... players of that nature."

And then there are players like Dany Heatley, Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson. The Senators' first line has been particularly outstanding in the playoffs, contributing a total of 37 points in the 10 games thus far. The second line (Schaefer, Mike Fisher, Mike Comrie) has chipped in with 11 points. So has the third line of Chris Kelly, Antoine Vermette and Neil.

The 22 points is the same number contributed by Ottawa's defence.

The fourth line has thrown up four points.

As they have done all season, the Sabres are expected to put Chris Drury up against Spezza.

Drury is John Madden with offensive talent and worse quotes.

"Buffalo is deeper in scoring than probably any team in the league," said Murray. "If you look at their talent level, it's outstanding. If they focus on one line to try and shut us down, the Fisher line and the Kelly line will definitely have to score some goals for us."

Spezza bets he'll see a lot of Drury and his linemates Jochen Hecht and Dainius Zubrus.

"They're a great line, they play really well defensively and they score a lot of key goals," said Spezza. "They can burn you.

"It's more of a first line vs. first line matchup, rather than a scoring line vs. a checking line. We saw them all season, I wouldn't expect them to change.

"Matchups are always important in the playoffs," added Spezza. "I hope our line can keep things rolling."


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