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Sabres offense finds outlet in quiet defensive pair

You heard it for years but after a while it sounded more like a defense mechanism than a demand. Buffalo hockey fans conditioned themselves into thinking a hard-working team mattered most, which was their way of taking comfort knowing the effort was there when the talent was not.

The Sabres are immensely skilled and have been scoring at a furious pace since the Olympic break, but we should appreciate how often those pretty plays began rather than gush over where they ended. Take a step back and see how good Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder have been this season.
OK, stop yawning. Nobody goes to the Hall of Fame for making effective breakout passes, but they skated into the weekend tied for the team lead with a rating of plus-18. Less than a handful of NHL teams had two defensemen with a better plus-minus than their combined plus-36. No pair was as anonymous as the two Sabres.

"Sometimes, you just find that chemistry with some guys," Tallinder said. "I think that's what's going on with me and Toni. He's an easygoing guy. He never blinks. He never stresses up. It makes it easy for me. The chemistry is just there."

Maxim Afinogenov with the puck is a rock concert compared to Lydman and Tallinder's subtle, symphonic style. But they've turned simple passing into an art form while quietly becoming one of the NHL's top duos.

Gee, who knew?

Tallinder is from Sweden, the supposed big brother to Lydman's Finland. Banter between the countries, if not 125 years of animosity, is constant. How many Finns does it take to change a light bulb? Five, one to hold the bulb and four to drink the vodka until the room starts spinning. How do you know you've been in Sweden too long? When your bad mood becomes your good mood.

"We don't really like each other," Tallinder joked.

Tallinder thought about firing away at Lydman after Sweden beat Finland for Olympic gold last month but changed his mind. Don't tell anybody, but he kinda likes his defense partner and, um, he didn't want to hurt his feelings.
"He's trying really hard," Lydman said with a laugh. "You know, he did move to Finland."

Tallinder and Lydman can jab each other all day, but there's no disputing their kinship on the ice. Both grew up playing the Scandinavian style, which emphasizes skating and puckhandling. They aren't overly aggressive. They're rarely out of position. They're suited for one another, suited for today's NHL.

"In Sweden and Finland, you're not playing if you can't pass or handle the puck," Lydman said. "Everybody knows what to do with the puck. If a forward is forechecking hard and trying to make hits, he usually looks like a fool running after two guys who are passing the puck to each other."

Perhaps most impressive about their success this season is that they've done it without putting up big numbers themselves. Entering Saturday, Lydman and Tallinder had combined for just six goals and 30 points. Detroit, Dallas, the Rangers and Ottawa -- the four teams with two defensemen combining for a higher plus-minus -- each had offensive defensemen that helped pad their ratings.

A week and a half ago, the Sabres surrendered 10 goals to Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, but the two defensemen still were a combined plus-5. No wonder they were leading Buffalo in ice time. Eventually, it does come back to skill. The Sabres have plenty. The next time you see a highlight-reel goal, roll back the tape another 10 seconds and see where it began.


Crawford endangered

Canucks coach Marc Crawford could be headed for the curb if he doesn't get his team turned around for the playoffs. Vancouver was leading the Northwest Division two weeks ago before a five-game tailspin had them battling for a playoff spot.

The latest was a 5-0 loss to Nashville in which the Canucks barely showed up and Mika Noronen was tagged for all five goals. General Manager Dave Nonis quickly said he wasn't changing coaches this year. OK, so he'll wait until the offseason to dump Crawford, especially if the Canucks miss the playoffs.

Crawford is hardly the problem. He's had problems with resident Canucklehead Todd Bertuzzi all season. Nonis tried trading Bertuzzi at the deadline, but teams weren't offering much for his baggage. He and Markus Naslund, once the most dominant tandem in the league, had no points during the losing streak.


Waiting on Hasek

Dominik Hasek was back on the ice last week for the first time since he wrenched his hamstring-groin, take your pick. You might find this utterly shocking, but the Senators are worried The Dominator might be out for a while.

Hasek was very tentative while skating without equipment. He planned to stay off the ice completely for at least another week, which means he's several weeks from getting back into the crease. There's no telling how he'll play when -- if -- he returns.

"Nothing surprised me," Hasek said. "There are several things I couldn't do two or three weeks ago that I can do now, but there are still a few more things I can't do, so I'll have to wait a few more days. I want to go more on the ice, but not this week."

Funny, nothing surprised me, either.


Jackets face change

The Blue Jackets are supporting GM Doug MacLean even though they haven't made the playoffs since joining the league and have almost no chance this season. He agreed to a contract extension that all but guarantees employment for another five years.

It was an important decision because MacLean, who will pocket about $1 million per season, needs to decide what to do with his hockey department. Some 25 contracts expire after the season, including his NHL and AHL coaching staffs.

By the way, Columbus lost in overtime for the first time this season last week when St. Louis scored in the extra period. Remarkably, the Jackets were the last team in the league to lose in OT, going 12-0-2 with seven shootout victories.


Griping about Gretzky

Nobody has taken a public stance, but players in Phoenix are moaning about coach Wayne Gretzky's version of the struggle and juggle. The Coyotes, who were 30-33-4 going into the weekend, believe reshuffling lines has contributed to their problems.

Actually, it might be the other way around. Gretzky hasn't liked his combinations because they haven't produced, so he's changing them. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff did the same thing when Buffalo had problems in recent years.

"They should just worry about playing," Gretzky said. "It's a crutch and an excuse. Scotty Bowman won championships and he changed his lines all the time when he was winning. In Edmonton, we changed our lines quite a bit even when we won. If we were winning and in first place, they could pick the lines."


Around the boards

The NHL is expected to announce in the next few days that the 2007 NHL entry draft will be held in Columbus. City officials had been lobbying for the draft for years with a idea it will pump about $3.5 million into the local economy. This year's draft will be June 24 in Vancouver.

Manny Legace has been trying to fight through a slump since the Olympics in which he gave up 20 goals in five games. Chris Osgood has been there as a backstop but Detroit wants Legace back to form before the playoffs. "I've been horse[bleep] since the Olympic break, to be honest with you," Legace said.

Jose Theodore, recovering from heel problems and awaiting the birth of his daughter in Montreal, finally met his new teammates Friday in Colorado. You couldn't blame him for taking his time. Colorado fans are split about the trade. Local columnists have been ripping GM Pierre Lacroix for spending $10.6 million over two years on Theodore's baggage.

Islanders owner Charles Wang has agreed to pay for what amounts to a $200 million makeover to the Nassau Coliseum, also known as the biggest dump in the league. The plan calls for stripping the building to its bones, adding suites and some 2,500 new seats. Wang and his partners are forking over the money out of their own pockets.


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