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Five months later, Rangers a much different team

The Buffalo Sabres won all four meetings over the New York Rangers during the regular season, but it's been nearly five months since the teams played. Three of the four games were decided in overtime or a shootout.

New York is much better than it was Dec. 1, when it stumbled for the last time against Buffalo. The Rangers were trying to find their way while the Sabres already had built the foundation that would lift them to the Presidents' Trophy.

The difference between the teams since Buffalo's shootout win was a measly seven points. Buffalo had four more victories, two fewer losses and lost one less game in overtime. What seemed to matter more in the playoffs was the Rangers blowing out Atlanta and the Sabres getting pushed by the New York Islanders.

New York has been barely on Buffalo's radar all season, but that's going to change now. The Blueshirts grabbed everybody's attention with their sweep of the Thrashers, which included a 7-0 rout in Game Three. It was a twist from last year, when the Rangers were swept in the first round.

Coach Tom Renney's team won eight of 11 games to end the regular season and hit the postseason in stride, but that's not to say they are any faster. The Rangers would not be wise to get into a skate-and-shoot session with the Sabres.

Michael Nylander centers the top line between Marcel Hossa and Jaromir Jagr. The second line of Sean Avery, Martin Straka and Brendan Shanahan could have a major effect on the outcome. Their top defense pairing of Marek Malik and Michal Rozsival is expected to log big minutes.

Avery's move from Los Angeles three weeks before the trade deadline was celebrated on both coasts. The Kings couldn't wait to unload him, and the Rangers were thrilled to acquire him. He had nine goals and 25 points and was plus-13 in 33 games, including playoffs, since the trade. He added much-needed toughness and became an instant hit on Broadway.
He makes the Rangers a different team. Are they better? We'll see.

>What's up

New York's sweep of Atlanta boosted the Rangers' confidence, especially that of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. He was brilliant at times against the Thrashers and is capable of stealing this series. Jaromir Jagr has eight goals and 22 points in his last 15 games, including the regular season. New York was anticipating the return of defenseman Karel Rachunek, who missed the final 12 games of the regular season and the first playoff series with a sprained knee.

>What's down

The Rangers have been sitting around for a week while waiting for their second-round opponent. All that time off helps in terms of rest, but it also has a way of killing momentum. Don't be surprised if New York looks rusty for the first period in Game One. The Sabres' four lines come in waves. Who do the Blueshirts play their checking line against? Buffalo appears to have a distinct advantage on the third and fourth lines, which could cause major matchup problems. Center Blair Betts and winger Jed Ortmeyer and either Ryan Hollweg or Colton Orr aren't fast enough to keep up with Tim Connolly, Ales Kotalik and Adam Mair or anybody else.

>The Rangers will win if...

Jagr takes over the series. The right wing is headed for the Hall of Fame, but he hasn't played more than six playoff games in six years and hasn't dominated the postseason in 11 years. He's never moved past the second round without Mario Lemieux on his team. The Rangers might be too heavy to carry past Buffalo.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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