bigcap,5,mdl TThat noise the New York Islanders heard as their charter bus motored westward on the Kensington Expressway was the sound of a city guffawing.
Internet message boards and radio talk shows have been rife with dismissive Buffalo Sabres fans picking their team to breeze through the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, which open in HSBC Arena tonight.
After all, the Sabres won the Presidents' Trophy and broke franchise records with 53 wins and 113 points.
The Islanders? Puh-lease.
They somehow made it into the postseason after a sequence of events so miraculous that, if they could find a link, would secure Father Nelson Baker's sainthood. The Isles went into the final week of the regular season a reeling mess, then rattled off four straight victories with their third-string goaltender and got incredible breaks from other teams.
A pervading belief among Sabres fans is the Islanders don't belong in the same league, let alone the same postseason.
Rest assured, no laughingstock sentiments are floating around Buffalo's dressing room.
"We're favorites going in," Buffalo defenseman Teppo Numminen said. "We finished first, and they finished eighth. I guess everybody thinks we should win.
"But the people who follow hockey know anybody can beat anybody. They've been playing the best hockey of their season the last couple weeks. Many people counted them out months ago. They proved people wrong. They're a hard-working team that believed in themselves and made it. So it's a dangerous team."
Islanders winger Jason Blake insisted his club isn't satisfied with merely reaching the postseason, that it's coming to play. The Sabres won the regular-season series, 3-1.
"Obviously, they're favored. There's no question about it," Blake said. "They're a good hockey team, and we haven't had much success against them. But it's a whole new season now. The intensity and everything else goes up. We're excited as a team. There's some confidence there. Two weeks ago, I'm sure everybody had written us off."
The Sabres seem to recognize they must check any arrogance, which has been an issue for them this season.
Co-captain Daniel Briere has been the first to criticize his team for allowing cockiness to affect performances.
But Briere claimed there was little chance the mighty Sabres would get too full of themselves anymore. While maintaining an intense focus is difficult for an 82-game schedule, he suggested the postseason commands total awareness.
"With the way everybody's driven to win and reach our goal, we're in the playoffs now," Briere said. "I don't think anybody's going to take it easy.
"During the season, I think that happened once in a while because it's a long season and at some points we had nobody around us and we had nothing to battle for. We had no team that was challenging us for first place. Sometimes you let yourself go a little bit. . . . It could happen [in the playoffs]. But I'm not worried about that."
Aside from a few hiccups here and there -- they had a losing record for January and won only three out of eight games in late February and early March -- the Sabres mostly have demonstrated an impressive mental resolve that helped them rebound from poor stretches and cope with various injuries.
While many teams might have responded to a heartbreaking postseason elimination such as the Sabres endured last spring with bitterness or by going through the paces while waiting for the playoffs, the Sabres bore down from the start. They opened with 10 straight victories that helped them essentially lead the Eastern Conference from wire to wire.
"There's been an anticipation, after the disappointment of last year, to get back and build off where we were," Sabres forward Adam Mair said. "We had 82 games to train and get our game to where it is. We need to perform now.
"We realize that, especially the history of this Stanley Cup journey, anything can happen. The stats get reset to zero. The wins and losses get reset to zero. It's a brand-new season."