No doubt, last summer could have been better for Brian Campbell. He was coming off a career year after spending his first few seasons simply trying to crack the lineup. Ask him how many games he was a healthy scratch the season before the lockout, and he'll quickly remind you it was 29.
But his memory of the playoffs last season was foggy at best. It's probably better that way, but let's review. He had emerged as the Buffalo Sabres' most dependable defenseman. He set the tone against Philadelphia when he unloaded on R.J. Umberger. In the end, he was a horse, logging 30 minutes a game and playing the biggest role along a blue line ravaged by injuries.
It's what made the final game so troubling. Campbell was exhausted in the third period against Carolina in Game Seven when he tried clearing the puck high off the glass. He wound up flipping it into the stands, a penalty for the Sabres, a series-clinching power-play goal for Rod Brind'Amour. Just like that, the Stanley Cup was gone.
Campbell never saw the replay, quickly deleted it from his memory bank. Such blunders can eat away at a player, but it did nothing to shake his confidence. He knew more opportunities would come in the playoffs this season, and he certainly didn't need to wait very long.
The Skating Tomato was the best player on the ice Thursday night in a 4-1 Game One win against the New York Islanders. He scored the critical first goal when he one-timed a pass from Tim Connolly in the first period and put the game out of reach when he rifled a slap shot into the top on the power play with 3:25 remaining. The play he made in between handed Chris Drury the winning goal and the Sabres early command of the series.
This time, it was Brendan Witt, like Campbell last year a victim of fatigue, who was whistled for delay of game in a tie game. Campbell hopped over the boards for the ensuing power play, faked a slap shot and sent a perfect pass along the ice. Drury easily found the open side.
"I feel really good," said Campbell, who was named the game's first star. "I feel confident. It feels good for all of us that we have the experience. We know what to expect. We can get it going right from the start."
If the Sabres want to get deep into the postseason, they'll need to control the tempo the way they did for most of the evening Thursday night against the Islanders. If they're going to control the tempo, the puck better take residence on Campbell's stick. And that's where it was as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
Buffalo didn't play its best game, but the essentials were there for winning in the postseason. The Sabres scored first and had two goals on the power play. Ryan Miller was solid in net after Buffalo dominated the first period. The Sabres kept home-ice advantage and established themselves as the superior team.
Buffalo made it clear that it intends to skate New York into the ground. Ruff played five forwards on the power play late in the second period. Dainius Zubrus clearly was itching for a long postseason run. He was terrific in the series opener, setting the tone early with a hit on Ryan Smyth and finishing with three assists.
It's hard to imagine they'll need more than five games to advance into the next round and continue their march. From the moment the season began, there's been a shift in the Sabres' attitude. Buffalo is no longer the young, unassuming team once full of inexperience and innocence and golly, gee whiz.
A quiet confidence came over the Sabres during the postseason last year, and they've since been starving for unfinished business. It's where Campbell was Thursday night, quietly confident and settling an old score.
"You gotta get back into that mode again, wanting to do everything and sacrificing your body. It's good to be back, I'll tell you that."