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It's Sabres vs. Islanders Playoff matchup has many angles

For 10 long years, Ted Nolan seethed over the way his coaching career ended with the Buffalo Sabres.

Now the New York Islanders coach will have the chance for ultimate payback. Of course, he also might be in for another world of Sabres hurt.

The top-seeded Sabres will meet the eighth-seeded Islanders in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, with the first two games taking place Thursday and Saturday in HSBC Arena.

The Sabres on Sunday afternoon lost to the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-3, in the Wachovia Center. The game was meaningless for both teams aside from the bragging rights earned by former Sabres goalie Martin Biron, who made 30 saves to beat his old mates.

More important was a game taking place in East Rutherford, N.J.

The Islanders squeaked into the playoffs Sunday night by finishing their regular season with a clutch, 3-2 shootout victory on the road over the New Jersey Devils. The Islanders needed two points to make the playoffs. Had they lost, the Toronto Maple Leafs would have finished eighth and faced the Sabres.

"I worry about any opponent," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "We've been in their position before and surprised teams. They controlled their own destiny and got the job done. The way I look at it, they have a good number of world-class players on that team. And they added another one at the deadline in Ryan Smyth. They have a strong team."

The Sabres-Islanders matchup is loaded with compelling story lines, including a tactical showdown between two winners of the Jack Adams
Award, which goes to the coach who "contributed the most to his team's success." Nolan is coaching his first NHL season since winning the award in 1997, when he didn't have his contract renewed. He helped announce Ruff as the Jack Adams recipient last year.
Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier, who oversaw the bitter Nolan divorce, learned at the knee of Bill Torrey, builder of the Islanders' dynasty of the 1980s. Sabres center Tim Connolly began his career on Long Island. The Islanders have former Sabres sniper Miroslav Satan.

The teams' last playoff meeting was the Islanders' six-game victory in the Eastern Conference finals of 1980, the year Buffalo finished first in the conference in points.

The Sabres went 3-1 against the Islanders in the regular season and outscored them, 15-10.

The Sabres posted one of their two shutouts (3-0) at Long Island on Oct. 26 and followed up with a 3-1 victory on New Year's Day in Nolan's first game back in Buffalo.

The Islanders defeated the Sabres, 5-3, at home Jan. 27. It was one of 10 games in which the Sabres allowed five or more goals.
But the Sabres won the most recent meeting, outgunning the Islanders, 6-4, in HSBC Arena two weeks ago. They chased starter Mike Dunham with five goals in the first period but scored only once on 18 shots against Wade Dubielewicz.

"Every hockey team wants that ticket to be in the postseason because once they're in they know anything can happen." Ruff said. "From Game One on, we'll have to play our best hockey to get through them."
It's a minor miracle the Islanders made it into the postseason. They went into the weekend in a three-way battle with the Montreal Canadiens and Maple Leafs for the last spot and required serious help.
Sunday's drama was made possible when the Canadiens squandered a two-goal lead over the Maple Leafs and lost in regulation Saturday night. The Canadiens were eliminated despite having the most control of their fate among the three teams still alive.

"It was a stupid game for Montreal," Buffalo defenseman Jaroslav Spacek said. "They gave up that big lead and a couple bad goals and lost the game like that. They should be dead."

Said Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere: "I thought it was going to be Montreal, so I haven't even thought about [the Islanders]. I don't know what to think."

On Sunday, the Islanders, playing without concussed franchise goalie Rick DiPietro, took a 2-0 lead deep into the third period. But Devils forward John Madden scored twice on Dubielewicz inside the final 4:13. The tying goal came with less than a second on the clock and forced a shootout. The Islanders survived behind goals from Satan and Viktor Kozlov.

"If somebody wants to show him one [an easy first-round matchup] I'd like to see it." Ruff said. "If you look at the eight first-round series you'd be hard-pressed to get four or five winners right."

Neither the Sabres nor Flyers were willing to merely play out the string Sunday afternoon in a game that was chippy at the start.

Thomas Vanek put the Sabres ahead 10:21 into the game. Maxim Afinogenov passed from in front of the Flyers' bench to Vanek, who had gotten behind defenseman Joni Pitkanen. Vanek beat Biron glove-side for his team-leading 43rd goal.

Philly tied the score 54 seconds later. Mike Knuble completed a home-run pass from deep in the Flyers' zone to winger Simon Gagne on the far blue line. Gagne skated past defenseman Henrik Tallinder for a breakaway and roofed a backhander.

The Flyers took the lead 2:04 into the second period when winger Stefan Ruzicka squeezed the puck between Conklin's skate and the post.

Buffalo surged back ahead by the second intermission. Jason Pominville banged home a Chris Drury rebound with 4:28 left in the period. Derek Roy batted home his own rebound with 11 seconds to go.

Biron said facing the Sabres in practice isn't the same as a game.

"When you play against them, it's a whole different ballgame," Biron said. "They were starting to buzz around and make little quick passes and quick plays around the net. At one point, it was getting a little scary."

The Flyers scored twice in the third period to win. Gagne won a defensive-zone faceoff to Knuble, who promptly sent the puck past Conklin at 3:42. Five minutes later Conklin lost the puck at his feet, but center Mike Richards found it and poked home the eventual winner.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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>Stanley Cup playoffs

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Buffalo Sabres vs. New York Islanders
New Jersey Devils vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

Atlanta Thrashers vs. New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Detroit Red Wings vs. Calgary Flames
Anaheim Ducks vs. Minnesota Wild
Vancouver Canucks vs. Dallas Stars
Nashville Predators vs. San Jose Sharks

SABRES SCHEDULE
All games on MSG
Thu., April 12 -- HSBC Arena, 8 p.m.
Sat., April 14 -- HSBC Arena, 7:30 p.m.
Mon., April 16 -- @ Islanders, 7:30 p.m.
Wed., April 18 -- @ Islanders, 7:30 p.m.
Fri., April 20 -- HSBC Arena, 7 p.m.
Sun., April 22 -- @ Islanders, 7 p.m.
Tue., April 24 -- HSBC Arena, TBA

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