Nobody should get too far ahead, but the Buffalo Sabres can take comfort knowing either the Ottawa Senators or Pittsburgh Penguins will be eliminated from the Eastern Conference playoffs in the first round. Their best-of-seven series begins tonight in the Corel Centre in Ottawa.
The Sens and Pens were two of the most dangerous teams in the second half of the season, but both were too far behind early in the year to win their divisions. The penalty for their slow starts was playing one another in an opening-round series worth watching for its speed and skill.
Fans, not to mention possible opponents, can only wish for seven games.
Pittsburgh often was compared to the 2005-06 Sabres because it sneaked up on other teams during the regular season and is dangerous enough to win the Stanley Cup. If nothing else, the Penguins' young players will learn from the experience. The playoff-ready Senators regained their Northeast Division-winning form from last season.
Tonight's four-game schedule appears more compelling than the four series starting Thursday. The other three involve teams from the Western Conference.
San Jose and Nashville are similar to Pittsburgh and Ottawa in style and talent. Either could win the whole thing. Dallas and Vancouver's matchup couldn't get much closer. Their four meetings during the regular season were decided by the same score, 2-1, with each winning once in regulation and once in overtime.
Minnesota and Anaheim have contrasting styles. The Wild will attempt to slow down the Ducks with defense and goaltending. Anaheim will counter with speed and aggression, especially along the blue line.
Here's a closer look at opening-round matchups that begin tonight:
>Ottawa vs. Pittsburgh
Senators update: Ottawa was 7-11-1 in first 19 games while Buffalo was 16-2-1 in its first 19 before the Senators kick-started their season with a win over the Sabres. Ottawa was the better team over the final 63 games (41-14-8) and had a 5-2-1 record against the conference champs. Look out for the Sens, who would like nothing more than a chance to knock off the Sabres down the road. They must first get past Pittsburgh and its fleet of high-flying young players. Ray Emery evolved into a top 15 goaltender. Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson must be at their best.
Penguins update: The Penguins were 31-9-5 after Jan. 1 while charging toward the top of the league standings. Need we say anything more about Sidney Crosby? Rookie Evgeni Malkin isn't far behind. Pens' best decision was keeping rookie Jordan Staal rather than sending him back to juniors. He had 29 goals, including seven shorthanded, and was plus-16. Critics wondered whether Marc-Andre Fleury was consistent enough in goal, but he's come into his own and has made the big saves when the Penguins needed them. Teams had best beware if the Pens win the series and gain momentum.
Outlook: The Senators' postseason experience is too much to overlook, plus they have home-ice advantage. Sens in seven games.
>Anaheim vs. Minn.
Ducks update: Anaheim back on the right track after a great start and midseason slump. Had a 9-10-2 record in January and February. Finished the season with a 13-3-4 record over the final 20 games. Teemu Selanne has been phenomenal with second straight 40-goal season. You think he likes the new NHL? Ducks set club marks for victories, including 22 on the road, while earning 100 points for the first time ever. Defensive corps is the best in the conference. J-S Giguere had a 21-2-5 record at home this season. Todd Marchant's torn groin muscle could be a major problem.
Wild update: Niklas Backstrom was a terrific find and is now the No. 1 goaltender. He's been the NHL's best (23-8-6, 1.97 GAA, .929 save percentage) since taking over for injured Manny Fernandez. The Wild opened up their offense this season, but their success still hinges on defense. They allowed a league-low 191 goals, just 55 in the third period. Their scoring comes from a balanced attack, although injured winger Marian Gaborik's production over 48 games put him on pace for 50 goals and 95 points over a full season. Still, the Wild did not have a scorer among the NHL's top 50.
Outlook: The Ducks are vulnerable to an early exit. They haven't faced Backstrom since Nov. 12, when he stopped 35 of 38 shots in a loss. He's much better now. Wild in six games.
>Nashville vs. San Jose
Predators update: Nashville spent time atop the league standings but instead finished fourth in the conference. Big reason was earning only five of 16 points against division-winning Detroit. Offensive production comes from everywhere for conference's highest-scoring team. Eight players finished with 50 or more points. Ex-Sabres winger J.P. Dumont had his best all-around season with 21 goals and a career-high 66 points. He also posted a plus-14 in his first season with the Preds after a minus-34 in his four previous seasons combined with the Sabres. Paul Kariya had just one assist to show for an eight-game stretch late in the season.
Sharks update: Much was made about Anaheim, Nashville and Detroit while the Sharks quietly cruised along on the West Coast. Joe Thornton led the league with 239 points over the past two seasons. The Sharks had a 12-3-5 record after acquiring winger Bill Guerin at the trade deadline. San Jose was just 18-13-1 against Pacific opponents while division rivals Dallas (24-7-1) and Anaheim (19-8-5) were better. Still, this is a dangerous team capable of winning it all. Both goalies are solid and should be well-rested for a long playoff run.
Outlook: Like many, this series comes down to goaltending. San Jose has the edge. Sharks in six games.
>Vancouver vs. Dallas
Canucks update: Goalie Roberto Luongo has been on a mission to make the playoffs since he was acquired for Todd Bertuzzi in one of the most lopsided swaps in recent memory. The Canucks were 17-18-1 on Dec. 22 but went 32-8-6 the rest of the way to set franchise records for wins (49) and points (105). Luongo had a 47-22-6 record, a 2.29 GAA and a .921 SP during the regular season, but he's never appeared in an NHL playoff game. Ex-Sabres winger Taylor Pyatt was third on the team in goals with 23.
Stars update: Dallas posted a 24-7-6 record after a Jan. 11 loss to Anaheim and during the season was an NHL-best 46-22-4 against Western Conference teams. Mike Ribeiro opened the season on the fourth line but finished as the Stars' leading scorer. Goalie Marty Turco won 30 games in four straight seasons but has an 8-14 record in the playoffs with a 2.54 GAA and an .892 SP over the same span. Last year, he had a 3.39 GAA in the postseason. The Stars had an NHL-high six victories this season after trailing by two goals or more entering the third period.
Outlook: Turco's playoff experience works against him because it's mostly been negative. Canucks in six games.