Next up in the tour around the Eastern Conference side of the first round…
Buffalo (3) vs. Boston (6)
Game 1 (Nov 7/@BOS): Bruins 4 – Sabres 2
Game 2 (Nov. 20/@BUF): Bruins 2 – Sabres 1 (OT)
Game 3 (Jan. 29/@BUF): Sabres 2 – Bruins 1
Game 4 (Feb. 9/@BUF): Bruins 3 – Sabres 2 (SO)
Game 5 (Mar. 29/@BOS): Sabres 3 – Bruins 2
Game 6 (Apr. 8/@ BOS): Bruins 3 – Sabres 1
Why the Sabres will win. Ryan Miller. Yes, he’s on the short list of Vezina Trophy candidates and a little longer list of Hart Trophy candidates, but it is how he is coming into the playoffs. After enduring a five-game winless streak in early February (0-3-2), he finished 12-4-1, 2.33, .924. He has shown no ill effects from backstopping Team USDA through the gold medal game at the Vancouver Olympics. And his numbers against the Bruins this season are microscopic – 1.71, .947 in going 2-0-2. Then there is the underappreciated balance that Buffalo brings on offense, a hallmark of Lindy Ruff-coached teams in recent years. Twenty Sabres (19 still with the team) finished in double digits in points; 12 (11 still with the team) had at least ten goals. And that means they can get production from unexpected places. For instance, Paul Gaustad was 2-2-4 against the Bruins for the season series, his best output against any NHL team.
Why the Bruins will win. For a team categorized as inept on offense and spent otherwise, they finished strong (9-4-1 in their last 13 games). And they might be catching the Sabres about to hit a downturn (2-4-0 in April). There is also the matter of having defeated the Sabres four times in six meetings this year and allowing them more than two goals in a game only once. Tuukka Rask’s numbers in goal against the Sabres are actually better than Miller’s against the Bruins (4-1-0, 1.43, .954). Since going nine consecutive appearances without a win through February 6th, Rask is 12-5-1, 1.80, .938, and two shutouts. Zdeno Chara has saved his best work, offensively, for the Sabres this year. In six games he is 1-6-7, plus-9. Overall, in the six games played the Bruins have shown a better (albeit not much) finishing kick, outscoring the Sabres 4-1 in the third period and overtime, after splitting goals down the middle in the first two periods (ten apiece). With respect to the injury to Marc Savard, he did not play a big factor in the season series, playing in only two of the six games (0-2-2). His absence, while it will be missed, is not a loss of production in the context of this series, one that Boston won anyway.
Players to watch… For Boston, Milan Lucic. The Bruins are going to have to find a way to get greasy points off Miller, especially since Marc Savard appears unlikely to appear in this series. Lucic has had a somewhat disappointing year overall (9-11-20, minus-7 in 50 games). It was even worse at home – one goal in 24 games. If the Bruins can’t get more production out of Lucic, it will be a steep climb indeed. For the Sabres, Tyler Myers. A Calder Trophy favorite and possible (though unlikely) Norris Trophy finalist, Myers has had a whale of a year. But now guys are playing for real money, and this is a different animal. Myers had more points against Boston (2-3-5) than he had against any other team. But in a series that might end up with more one-goal games than any other, it’s what he does at the other end that will be a big part of whether the Sabres are on the good or the bad side of those one-goal decisions.
In the end... Buffalo has more experience in big-game situations in goal with Ryan Miller holding the edge over Tuukka Rask. Buffalo is a little greener on defense, depending as much as they do on Tyler Myers (he led the team in total ice time and shorthanded ice time). Pick any game you want, and it is likely that first to three goals wins. We think Buffalo will do that once more often than the Bruins, owing to better scoring balance and an edge in goal in big games.
Who will win?... Buffalo in seven.