The Buffalo Sabres' best asset is forcing them to make their biggest adjustment.
The Sabres are the healthiest they've been all season, and it's allowed them to create four potent offensive lines. Coach Lindy Ruff used them all in the first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders, and he will do the same thing versus the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinal that begins tonight.
A drawback to rolling four sets of forwards is the players skate a fine line between being fresh and feeling stale. Most are getting fewer minutes, which saves their energy, but they aren't yet accustomed to the longer break between shifts. Sitting rather than playing can lessen their feel for the game.
"Typically during the year, when you're down a man here or a man there [due to injury], your top lines are playing 20 minutes and you maybe have some individuals that are playing six or seven," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "Right now we're trying to balance it out between 11 and 17, and sometimes that makes it tougher on guys to get in the flow.
"We're trying to divvy up some ice time where some individuals, obviously, are being asked to take a little bit less for the betterment of the team."
The largest dip in the opening round was sustained by the line of center Derek Roy, left wing Thomas Vanek and right wing Maxim Afinogenov. They all played two to three fewer minutes in the opening round than they did in the regular season, dropping from about 16 to 14.
"The more you play, the more you're into the game, and the more confident you are making plays," Vanek said. "Honestly, as a competitor, you would like to play as much as you can. But whatever happens, as long as we win, it's fine. If you're on the losing side and you play eight, nine minutes, it [stinks] obviously."
Center Tim Connolly skipped Tuesday's practice to rest his sore hamstring. Ruff said Connolly will play in Game One tonight in HSBC Arena.
Connolly is one player who should not expect a major boost in ice time. He is averaging 13:16 in the playoffs after missing 80 games because of a concussion and stress fracture in his leg. He is playing well, but Ruff has reservations about using him more.
"I still do, yeah," he said. "I don't think his conditioning level is conducive to 19 minutes. But he could prove me wrong, too. I don't think it's something you would see game in, game out, but you may see one game based on special teams."
The Sabres have announced several changes to their "Party in the Plaza," which takes place outside the arena before and during games.
More than 3,000 people crammed the sidewalks to watch Game Five of the Islanders series on a large video screen, so the party is expanding to the street. Perry Street will be closed from Washington to Illinois streets by 4:30 p.m. prior to Games One and Two to give revelers more room. Motorists are advised to plan alternate routes.
The Sabres also decided to stop serving beer in the plaza in order to create a more family-friendly atmosphere. Cups, cans and bottles littered the area last game, and fans will now be prohibited from bringing coolers and chairs.
The event is free. Strictly Hip, a Tragically Hip cover band, will perform, and the 12-foot by 9-foot screen will show the live Jumbotron feed of the game.
The cliche about not getting too high or too low has finally come into play.
The Sabres and Rangers appear more competitively matched to each other than they did to their first-round opponents, so many are predicting the best-of-seven series to go the distance. In turn, that has players cautioning they don't want to get too pumped about each victory or overly deflated by a loss.
"I always expect a long series," Sabres defenseman Jaroslav Spacek said. "I appreciate it shorter, but you've always got to look at a long run. We've got to be patient about it."
Sabres enforcer Andrew Peters, a scratch in each game so far, spent part of Tuesday playing media member. His stall is next to goaltender and media magnet Ryan Miller, and cameras and microphones swamped the area.
Peters grabbed a sneaker, and the forward reached over the masses to place it alongside the recorders.
Rangers coach Tom Renney on Sean Avery, who talked about hurting the Sabres: "I don't think he's been over the top at all." . . . One day after Ruff announced he wouldn't match lines, he said he might. Asked if he might announce the opposite today, he replied, "That's a possibility."