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Faceoff skill adds to Drury's value in the clutch

There were two obvious ways Chris Drury showed why he's considered one of the biggest clutch players in the NHL. The Buffalo Sabres center scored a pair of goals in Thursday night's 4-1 victory over the New York Islanders in Game One of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.

Drury also offered a bunch of little reminders that didn't reverberate through HSBC Arena. He won 60 percent of his draws (15 of 25) on a night when the rest of the Sabres won 44 percent.

The series matches two of the NHL's top faceoff artists in Drury and Islanders center Mike Sillinger. Among regulars in the circle, Drury and Sillinger each were successful 58.8 percent of the time, tying them for third in the league behind Yanic Perreault and Rod Brind'Amour.

Sillinger won 1,004 faceoffs, second only to Brind'Amour's 1,213. Drury ranked fourth with 948.

"It is important," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "We're relying on Chris to counter what Sillinger brings to his faceoff percentage and [Islanders center Randy] Robitaille at the same time."

Although Drury's overall success rate in Game One was better, Sillinger won the head-to-head battle, corralling seven of the 12 faceoffs he took against Drury.

Ruff lamented his team's faceoffs in the first period, when it won only six of 19. Buffalo rebounded to win 27 of 47 in the second and third periods.

"If you're going to lose that many faceoffs you have to make adjustments because you've got to play to lose some," Ruff said. "If you play to win [but keep losing faceoffs] you're giving the team easy puck possession. If you play and think you're going to lose, you at least can apply some instant pressure.

"In Chris' case, you know the odds say he's going to win more than he loses, and when we need an important draw, nine times out of 10, we'll throw him out there to counter what they have."

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If Rick DiPietro plays for the Islanders tonight as expected, the series will become a rare showdown between two U.S. goalies. DiPietro is from Winthrop, Mass. Sabres netminder Ryan Miller hails from East Lansing, Mich.

DiPietro was named the starter of the 2006 U.S. Olympic squad over Miller, who controversially didn't make the roster.

"No point getting into that," Miller bluntly said, quashing any rekindling of that story line.

Both the Sabres and Islanders also have American reserves: Sabres backup Ty Conklin (Anchorage, Alaska) and Islanders third goalie Mike Dunham (Johnson City), who backed up Canadian Wade Dubielewicz for Game One but likely will be scratched tonight.

Only one other playoff team has one Yankee goalie, and New Jersey Devils backup Scott Clemmensen (Des Moines, Iowa) won't see the ice unless something bad happens to Martin Brodeur.

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The Islanders quickly responded to information that appeared Friday in The Buffalo News that suggested they hadn't sufficiently scouted the Sabres.

The story reported Islanders winger Jason Blake didn't know dangerous Sabres winger Maxim Afinogenov had returned a week earlier from a broken wrist and that the Sabres lineup the Islanders posted in their dressing room contained incorrect personnel and didn't include Connolly.

Assistant coach Danny Flynn said the dry-erase board had been turned over so the media wouldn't see any sensitive scouting notes. On the flip side was a lineup from the previous HSBC Arena game April 5 against the Boston Bruins. The Islanders staff then jotted down Thursday's itinerary for the players without erasing the old lineup, implying all the info had been updated.

How Blake didn't know Buffalo's 2005-06 scoring leader was back in uniform remains a mystery.

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Sabres forward Paul Gaustad, recovering from a severed left ankle tendon, is healing faster than the team expected.

Ruff said Gaustad could be practicing with his teammates next week and might be cleared to play in the Eastern Conference finals if the Sabres get that far.

The original prognosis had Gaustad likely being done for the postseason with a remote possibility of being healthy in time for the Stanley Cup finals. His ankle got slashed by Ottawa Senators winger Dany Heatley's skate on Feb. 7.

"He's coming along nicely," Ruff said. "He's skating on his own now. Maybe in a week or so he can start getting involved in light practices. The time frame, we're looking at him being back probably within a month. He's doing real well."

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Drury was credited with the winning goal in Game One, giving him 13 in the postseason. The goal pushed him ahead of Jeremy Roenick for the most winners by an active U.S.-born player.

Wayne Gretzky holds the NHL record with 24 winning goals.

Claude Lemieux is second with 19, while Maurice Richard and Joe Sakic are tied for third with 18.

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Count defenseman Jaroslav Spacek among those at least a little miffed by Thursday's muted HSBC Arena crowd. The sellout gathering of 18,690 seemed unsure of the proceedings as the Sabres and Isles skated well into the second period tied at 1.

"The people have been so crazy," Spacek said. "I expected a little more, but it never happened. It was a slow game, which was surprising for a playoff game."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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