Sometimes lost in the goal-scoring euphoria, the astonishing comebacks and the sensational highlight-reel plays, the Buffalo Sabres have had their difficulties on defense this season.
Their goaltender's numbers got worse. Their penalty kill was shaky and downright abysmal at home. They gave up four or more goals 31 times. They were outshot in every period and overtime for the season.
For the second straight spring, however, the Sabres have tightened up for the playoffs. They head into tonight's opening game of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the New York Islanders playing perhaps their best defensive hockey of the season.
As the Sabres so painfully learned last spring, there's no substitute for defensive depth. Throughout 2005-06 they continued to overcome significant injuries at forward, but they were knocked out when they were forced to dress four AHL-caliber defensemen in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Sabres are quietly confident their blue line is ready for a run at the Stanley Cup. They posted a road shutout over the Washington Capitals in goaltender Ryan Miller's last start.
"I like what we've been doing defensively," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said. "That end of our game has gotten stronger. Offensively, we've still been strong. Putting some accent on our defensive play hasn't hurt our offense at all. I like where our game is at."
The Sabres have never been healthier than they are right now. They broke training camp with one injured player but soon had two and three and four. They headed into March with seven important contributors on the shelf. Through their first 76 games, their top six defensemen had missed 69 games.
Now the Sabres' injury list is back to one: big forward Paul Gaustad. Tim Connolly returned for the final two regular-season games after an 11-month absence from a concussion and stress fracture, and Maxim Afinogenov came back for the last three games after missing 21 with a broken wrist. All seven defensemen are available, a rare occurrence.
On the individual player front, nobody is hotter than winger Thomas Vanek. He closed the regular season with eight goals and 13 points in the last nine games and recorded multipoint games in six of the last 11 games.
Miller has won seven of eight games but got particularly stingy in the last three. After allowing four or more goals six times in a 13-game stretch, he gave up only three in his final three starts.
Buffalo's special teams remain a serious concern. The power play ranked third in the NHL last season, while the penalty kill ranked second.
The 2006-07 power play settled at 17th overall, seventh at home and 24th on the road.
The penalty kill, long a Ruff hallmark, was more troubling. It plummeted to 20th overall and 29th at home, better only than the Phoenix Coyotes.
>Sabres will advance if ...
They don't get too full of themselves and don't give the Islanders an opportunity to build confidence. The Sabres should be able to dominate the Islanders by rolling four potent lines against a questionable defense.
The Islanders pulled off a miracle by closing with four straight victories and receiving some outside help, so they have momentum. If the Islanders can catch a few breaks in Buffalo and return to Long Island with some swagger, then Ted Nolan will have his boys gnawing on the boards in anticipation of their next shifts.
But if the Sabres approach the Islanders with a certain degree of respect and execute a methodical authority, they should win in five games.