Jaromir Jagr has a plan. The Buffalo Sabres are standing in the way of it.
The matchups for the Eastern Conference semifinals were completed Sunday, and the Sabres learned their tour of the Big Apple will continue. After eliminating the New York Islanders in the first round, the Sabres will face the New York Rangers in the next best-of-seven matchup.
The schedule had yet to be released late Sunday, but Game One will be either Wednesday or Thursday night in HSBC Arena. According to NBC, which will televise weekend games, Game Two is 3 p.m. Saturday in the arena.
It's been nearly five months since the teams last played each other, but it shouldn't take long for the hostilities to be renewed. The top-seeded Sabres swept the regular-season series, 4-0, but only one game was decided in regulation. Buffalo won twice in overtime and earned a shootout victory in the final meeting Dec. 1.
The Rangers were a pedestrian 13-9-4 after that loss, but they've steadily improved and find themselves in a full sprint. They are 17-3-4 in their last 24 games, including a four-game sweep of Atlanta in the opening round.
"They're a balanced attack," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Sunday. "It's come from a lot of different places. They've got younger guys that have been in the scoring department, but I think it's overall balance. They've played sound defensively, and their goaltender has been very good."
The sixth-seeded Rangers are paced by Jagr, who figures to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he hangs up his skates. The 35-year-old won back-to-back Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh during his first two seasons. Mario Lemieux did the bulk of that work, and Jagr wants to return the favor to the youngsters on his team.
"I love the players I am playing with," Jagr said last week. "When I was young, Mario gave me the Cup. I always wanted to help the younger guys like Mario helped me."
The Rangers were Exhibit A in the NHL's case to change its salary system. They bid high for free agents, and they bid often. But when the salary cap was implemented prior to last season, it forced New York to mix younger players with a few veterans. It worked. The Rangers last year made the playoffs for the first time since 1997, but a shoulder injury to Jagr sent them home after four games.
They've added three-time Cup winner Brendan Shanahan and pest Sean Avery to a lineup that includes sensational second-year goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and blossoming forwards Petr Prucha and Ryan Callahan, a Rochester native.
"We're kind of rewriting the personality of the New York Rangers," said Shanahan, 38. "It's a lot more like a New York fan.
"The diversity on this team and the hard work was what brought us success. We've got some pluggers, some small guys who are gritty, some old grizzled guys who are still hanging around, and we got guys from different cultures and different backgrounds."
How the Sabres fare against Lundqvist will be one key to the series. He beat Sabres goalie Ryan Miller for a spot on the All-Rookie team last season, and he went 37-22-8 this season with a 2.34 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. But he played just once against the Sabres, losing, 3-2, in overtime.
Jagr's center, Michael Nylander, torched Atlanta in the first round. He had four goals and four assists in the four games. Jagr was right behind with seven points on two goals and five assists.
"The last 20 or 30 games of the regular season, the way we played, we can play anybody," Jagr said.
They'll get their chance against the NHL's top team from the regular season, a squad in search of the perfect game. The Sabres beat the Islanders in just five games, but they repeatedly said they want to get better. They spent part of Sunday's practice in the Amherst Pepsi Center working toward that.
"We expect a lot more out of ourselves, and people expect more out of ourselves," co-captain Daniel Briere said. "We realize that. We have to be better. We know we have to be better if we want to move on and go far in the playoffs."