The Buffalo Sabres, depending on how one wants to put it, either breezed through the first round or exhibited vulnerabilities.
The Presidents' Trophy winners eliminated the eighth-seeded New York Islanders in five games. The Sabres trailed for a total of 4:53 in their victories. Four lines contributed. Ryan Miller was superb. Special teams improved.
Yet there was a general feeling of uneasiness among many fans because the mighty Sabres didn't annihilate the Isles, who had the worst regular season of any playoff team. There were too many tense moments.
There were erratic first periods. The Sabres caught some breaks. Comfortable leads were rare, and when the Sabres looked like they would punctuate the series with a Game-Five blowout, the Isles beat Miller three times in the third period and would have forced overtime had he not made a circus save in the closing seconds.
All of it was good enough to beat the Islanders, but will it suffice against the NHL's hottest club? Next up for the Sabres are the New York Rangers, who have gone 17-3-4 in their past 24 games, including an opening-round sweep of the Atlanta Thrashers.
"There are areas in every game that we've been disappointed in," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "Our last game probably was a strong 50 minutes and the last 10 we were disappointed in the way we played in our own end. We've had some dominating periods, and we've had periods where we haven't played as well.
"I think you can expect the other team to have some good periods but inside those games we want to clean up how we forecheck, how we play in our own end."
Don't bother to look at the regular-season series because the Sabres won't. They won all four games against the Rangers (two in overtime, one in a shootout), but all of them were played by Dec. 1. The personnel has changed too much in the interim. The Sabres dressed top defenseman Henrik Tallinder once and faced molten Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist once. The Sabres have added Dainius Zubrus, while the Rangers have acquired Sean Avery.
"Things change over the year, and I think you want to stay current," Ruff said. "We can go back and hope to do what we did four months ago. A lot of our attack doesn't change, but at the same time we want to be up to date with what they're doing."
The Sabres rolled four lines successfully in the first round, giving Ruff no reason to match lines against the Rangers.
Every line had at least two forwards clicking. Co-captain Chris Drury had four goals and an assist, while Zubrus notched five assists. Center Derek Roy and wingers Thomas Vanek and Maxim Afinogenov combined for four goals and seven assists. Tim Connolly had three assists centering the fourth line, while Adam Mair had a goal and two assists.
Buffalo's defensemen chipped in. Brian Campbell potted two goals. Dmitri Kalinin and Toni Lydman scored one apiece.
Buffalo's power play ranked sixth among all playoff teams in the first round, converting 16.7 percent of its chances. The penalty kill was fifth (17-19, 89.5 percent).
The Sabres advanced without having to show much of a killer instinct. They easily defeated Isles backup goalie Wade Dubielewicz in Game One, but the next four games featured harrowing moments with Rick DiPietro back from concussions.
A blowout victory over the Islanders would have settled some nerves. Such a knock is more philosophical than pragmatic. Four one-goal playoff victories punch a club's ticket to the next round.
>Sabres will win if . . .
They play to the level of their competition, diffuse the Rangers' soaring confidence and impose their will rather than being content to stay one step ahead.
Two keys will be shutting down Jaromir Jagr, who has amassed 39 goals and 92 points in 69 games against Buffalo, and deciphering Lundqvist.
There's nothing more fearsome than a hot playoff goalie, and Lundqvist (4-0, 1.50 goals-against average, .939 save percentage) qualifies.
If the Sabres get scoring from all four lines, that should do the trick.