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Rookie Stafford breaks ice with goal

The only rookie on the Buffalo Sabres' roster has experienced a quick initiation to playoff hockey. Drew Stafford hasn't looked out of place one bit.

Stafford was in the thick of the action in Friday's 4-3 series-clincher over the New York Islanders, notching his first career playoff goal to open the scoring and give Buffalo a lead it never gave up.

"I've been able to get more comfortable out there," Stafford said. "I know what to expect a little more now. A lot of guys in here have been saying not every game will be easy and it will be a tough road and it was tonight."

Stafford scored his goal on a nifty backhand at 15:04 of the first period. He worked his way out of the right corner, shook off Islanders forward Randy Robitaille and beat goaltender Rick DiPietro.

"I just tried to take it to the net and stick my leg out there to protect the puck a little bit," he said. "I was able to get enough time there to get a shot off. I threw it to the net and I happened to find a hole. It was good to get the first one over with. I was waiting for it for a few games."

"He's played very sound for us ever since we brought him up," said coach Lindy Ruff. "In this series, his first playoff series, I thought we got a very strong effort out of him. I think he'll grow throughout the playoffs."

It's not Stafford's primary focus by any means but the 6-foot-1, 202-pounder has also shown he isn't shy of the game's physical aspects. He was credited for a team-high three hits, including a cruncher on Brendan Witt.

"They have a couple guys that like to play physical," he said. "I'm not really a big hitter but I try and use my body to protect the puck. I try to counter-hit as much as I can. I've been blessed with decent enough size . . . I'm not going to back down from it."

Stafford had 13 goals and 14 assists in the regular season and the former first-round pick said getting a regular shift on a playoff team might have exceeded even his own lofty expectations.

"I remember at this time last year I'm watching in college," he said. "Our season at North Dakota was over and you really didn't have much to do but go to class and hang out watching playoff hockey. It's a great experience for me now. Being here, I'm just having so much fun with it. I'm going to try my best to keep contributing any way I can."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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