The Buffalo Sabres' rise to prominence has come after a three-year stay at the bottom of the Northeast Division. One thing that changed through the transformation was game planning. For years, the Sabres had to worry about what other teams would do and had to change their game plan in order to slow them. Now the roles are reversed. Teams spend hours examining video to determine how best to defend Buffalo, while the Sabres worry most about the Sabres.
It appears not even Jaromir Jagr is going to change that.
The Eastern Conference semifinal between the Sabres and New York Rangers will start Wednesday, and both teams have a player who fills an important niche. The Rangers have Jagr, one of the most potent offensive players of his generation. The Sabres have Chris Drury, who earned Selke Trophy votes this season as the NHL's best defensive forward.
It would seem logical for the Sabres to make sure Drury is on the ice whenever Jagr is. But the Sabres enjoy making other teams adapt to them, so coach Lindy Ruff said Monday he will not alter his game plans just to make sure Drury and his wingers shadow Jagr and his linemates.
"No. No," Ruff said. "We didn't do any changing on the fly this year. We didn't pour anybody over the boards. We'll get matchups that we like."
It's certain Drury, left wing Drew Stafford and right wing Dainius Zubrus will counter Jagr's line in key situations. But if the Sabres are to get back to the league's final four, every line is going to have to do its best against Jagr, center Michael Nylander and left wing Marcel Hossa.
"[Ruff] hasn't been that big on changing the pace of the game by switching us a lot or saying, 'As soon as somebody's off the ice, you get off the ice,' " Zubrus said. "There hasn't been much of that. But obviously they're great players. Him and Nylander, they've got a great thing going on, and we've got to be aware. That's it. You've got to be aware and be tighter."
The Jagr line was a major reason New York swept Atlanta in the first round. Nylander led the Rangers with four goals and four assists in the four games, while Jagr was second with two goals and five assists. Hossa added a goal and a helper.
"Their top guys are playing like their top guys, and when that team does that they're a difficult team to beat," Sabres center Tim Connolly said.
Whatever line is matched up against Jagr has to maintain its focus. In eight games against the Sabres over the last two seasons, Jagr has at least a point in every one. He had a goal and seven assists this season, and three goals and three assists in 2005-06.
One thing the Sabres have going for them this year is most of Jagr's points have come on the power play. His goal and five of his assists were with the man advantage, so he hasn't been as deadly as usual at full strength. He earned two-thirds of last season's points playing five-on-five.
"For us it's going to be important either to stay out of the box or find a way to keep him away from the puck on the power play," Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere said. "That's not an easy thing to do.
"When you have the puck you're thinking offense. When you don't have it you want to be back. You want to be helping your defensemen because he's the type of player who likes to play one-on-one. So you don't want to leave a defenseman or any player on the ice playing one-on-one against him because he's got the skills to beat you."
Another reason the Sabres aren't planning to focus solely on Jagr's line is New York's other trios are potent, too. The second line features two-time Olympian Martin Straka in the middle of left wing Sean Avery and three-time Cup winner Brendan Shanahan. The third line boasts center Matt Cullen and young scorers Petr Prucha and Ryan Callahan. The Rangers sparingly use their fourth line of Blair Betts, Colton Orr and Jed Ortmeyer.
The units have combined to go 17-3-4 in the past 24 games.
"They are a good team, and I'm not going to take anything away from them," Rangers coach Tom Renney said of the Sabres, "but I'm not going to pump their tires, either.
"I don't say they're the cream of the crop right now. I'm not suggesting that I don't want to give them credit, but we're where we are because we belong here, too. We'll let the series play itself out."
Ruff plans to let things play out as well, especially when it comes to line matchups. And, as he hoped, the Rangers are thinking a little bit about how to defend his squad rather than concentrating solely on themselves.
"We have to somehow play in their zone," Jagr said. "If you let them play in our zone, cycling, they're tough to stop."
Sabres vs. Rangers / Best-of-seven series
Wed., April 25: @ Buffalo, 7 p.m., Versus
Fri., April 27: @ Buffalo, 7 p.m., MSG
Sun., April 29: @ New York, 2 p.m., Ch. 2
Tues., May 1: @ New York, 7 p.m., Versus
x-Fri., May 4: @ Buffalo, 7 p.m., MSG
x-Sun., May 6: @ New York, 2 p.m., Ch. 2
x-Tues., May 8: @ Buffalo, 7 p.m., MSG