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A little animosity could go a long way The hatred is rising from the ice in HSBC Arena, and we haven't even dropped the puck

Normally, it takes at least a game or two for teams to generate a healthy disdain for one another in a Stanley Cup series. The players need time to exchange cheap shots and other pleasantries, and to get on each other's nerves. Reporters need time to gather, twist and distribute the inflammatory quotes between dressing rooms.

But this Sabres-Rangers series is already off to a contentious and combustible start. The hatred is rising from the ice in HSBC Arena, and we haven't even dropped the puck for Game One tonight. And do you know what? It might be just what the Sabres need.

After Tuesday's practice, Daniel Briere and Lindy Ruff agreed that the Sabres lacked an emotional edge in their first-round series against the Islanders. Arrogant as it might sound, there was no sense of fear, none of the hostility you find in a truly competitive matchup.

"I don't know what it was with the Islanders," Briere said. "There just wasn't a lot of hatred out there. You look at the tone of the other series, where they're destroying each other left and right. With our series, everybody was nice to each other. There weren't any dirty shots. I don't know how to explain it, but it wasn't like last year against the Flyers, Ottawa, or even the Hurricanes.

"But I expect that to change pretty quickly."

The Rangers are doing their part. Sean Avery, their resident agitator, has promised to hurt the Sabres and turn the series into a war. Coach Tom Renney, typically a low-key sort, said Buffalo isn't "the cream of the crop" in the NHL, although he did concede that they are one of the eight teams still in Cup contention.

All right, so it's not Ken Hitchcock dropping F bombs on Ruff, but it's a good start. Renney isn't as willing to embrace the underdog's role as Ruff was before the second-round series against top-seeded Ottawa last year, when he and the Sabres gladly deferred (wink, wink) to the favored Senators.

This year, it's the Sabres who are the No. 1 seed. The Rangers are the hot, fashionable underdog. A lot of hockey pundits are picking Buffalo to get bumped off after watching New York roll over Atlanta while the Sabres were having a surprisingly tough time with the Isles.

The Sabres know what people are saying. They know the experts see them as this year's vulnerable top seed. But I'm sorry, the Rangers are not last year's Sabres. They have a solid team, a good system, a terrific goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist. But they're not the threat that Buffalo was at this time a year ago.

They're not going to come out and admit it, but the Sabres have to be feeling insulted by it all. They were the best team in the NHL this year. They finished first overall despite a harrowing run of injuries down the stretch. Every time they faced a crisis this season, they responded.

The Sabres seem to play their best when confronted with a serious challenge, or when they feel the world is underestimating them. The notion that they're ripe for an upset might be just the thing to get them going after a languid performance in the first round.

Avery says he wants to hurt someone. But by stoking the hatred, he might actually be helping the Sabres. It's clear that Avery tries to get under an opponent's skin. But an angry, motivated Buffalo team might be more than he or his coach bargained for.

"I mean, that's always good for our room," Briere said, laughing. "But I'm not going to get into a war match with any of their guys -- or not yet, anyway. We'll see after a few games. It's good. It's good for our dressing room, definitely. We thrive when we find motivation and we'll find some stuff to get motivated for."

By their own admission, the Sabres struggled with the favorite's role in the first round. They were uncomfortable with the notion that they were supposed to breeze through the Islanders. Ruff said they played as if they were eager to get the series over with. It showed in the third period of Game Five, when they staggered to the finish.

They know they're playing to a different standard now, the highest standard. The Sabres seemed to be holding back against the Isles, as if they were conserving physical and emotional capital for later in the playoffs. Now it's time to find another gear, to play up to the level they set during the regular season.

If they want to prove themselves in a hostile, emotional series, this is the time to do it. The Rangers haven't been this far in 10 years. The fans in Madison Square Garden haven't had a lot to cheer about in recent years. The Garden will be an angry, howling place when the Sabres show up there. It won't be Raleigh, that's for sure.

On the other hand, the Rangers haven't seen anything like the Sabres when they're motivated and on top of their game. A little well-contained anger won't hurt, either.

"I agree with that," Ruff said. "I've always felt you have to kind of hate your opposition."

So you hate the Rangers?

"I'm starting to," he said.

It's on, folks. The round of hate.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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