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Muckler, Hasek may loom in Sabres' near future

You can see where this is headed, can't you? The Buffalo Sabres could wind up having to revisit some of the darkest days in franchise history if they plan to win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Oh, what a story it would make.

The Sabres knocked off the Ted Nolan-coached New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs. They're not looking past the Rangers, but it shouldn't stop anybody else. If Buffalo can dispatch New York and Ottawa beats New Jersey, the Sabres would reacquaint themselves with Senators General Manager John Muckler.

Of course, this journey wouldn't be complete without Dominik Hasek. The Dominator was back to his old tricks in Detroit. He helped keep the Red Wings' hopes for another Stanley Cup alive when they beat the Calgary Flames in the first round.

Reminder for first-time riders on the Sabres' bandwagon and anybody who hasn't graduated from high school: Nolan, Muckler, Hasek and Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn were embroiled in a power struggle for the ages after Buffalo won the Northeast Division title in 1997.

Muckler and Quinn were shown the door, Nolan spent the next decade in exile and Quinn returned with billionaire owner Tom Golisano to save the franchise. Sabres GM Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff enjoyed three appearances in the conference finals in eight seasons. Now, they're looking to take this season two steps farther.

Don't get too excited. The best-case scenario, Buffalo beating Ottawa and meeting Detroit for the Cup, is probably too much to ask.

The Rangers should give the Sabres a good test and are capable of winning the series if everything snaps into place. Not much has been said about Blueshirts goalie Henrik Lundqvist, but he's been nearly unbeatable at times this season. If the Sabres play the way they did against the Islanders, they could get beat.

New Jersey plays a disciplined style that could effectively slow down the Sens, the best team in the first round. Martin Brodeur has his game back in order, which could make for a low-scoring series that favors the Devils. Ottawa was looking to avoid its annual meltdown, which usually happens without warning.

Detroit isn't going to coast past San Jose, either. In fact, the Sharks have a good chance of winning that series and could be the sleeper among the final eight teams. The Red Wings do a good job of limiting shots against, but Hasek could wind up being the difference against the Sharks.

Vancouver barely had time to celebrate its emotional seventh-game victory over Dallas before getting ready for Anaheim. The Ducks are solid everywhere you look. Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo will need to steal the series for his team to have a chance.

Here's a closer look at the four remaining series.

>Eastern Conference

Buffalo vs. N.Y. Rangers

Sabres update: Eliminated the New York Islanders in five games in the first round, but they were nowhere near their top speed. Still, the Sabres are so talented across their four lines that it's difficult for any team to match up with them. The addition of Tim Connolly gives them another dimension, especially on special teams. His puckhandling performance on the penalty kill in Game Five made the Isles look like mite house players. Co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere were terrific against the Isles, which was why Buffalo won. Both are proven big-game players who are unflappable under pressure. At times, the Sabres tried doing too much with their skill rather than with hard work. Play like the fourth line, and you'll score like the first line. The Sabres have an advantage over the Rangers when it comes to depth and goaltending, but their effort was spotty in the first round.

Rangers update: Swept the Atlanta Thrashers in the first round. The Blueshirts appeared to dominate, but looks can be deceiving. The Thrashers barely showed up for the playoffs, dropped the first two games at home and sprinted for the bus. Love him or hate him, Jaromir Jagr is still a dominant player who can single-handedly take over a playoff series. He played well (30 goals, 96 points) during the season, but he was often overlooked while fans followed bigger stories elsewhere. Sean Avery isn't the most popular player, either, but he is effective and adds toughness. He will have an impact on this series, one way or another. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist won all four games with a 1.50 GAA and a .939 SP against Atlanta.

Outlook: The Rangers weren't really tested, and the Sabres didn't really play well in the first round. Fans should expect both to change in the second round. Sabres in six games.

New Jersey vs. Ottawa

Devils update: Eliminated the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games. The Devils' problems against the Lightning coincided with goalie Martin Brodeur's mini-slump. Once he settled down, his teammates followed. Brodeur stopped 63 of 65 shots over the final two games as the Devils advanced. New Jersey averaged 3.16 goals a game in the first round after scoring 216 goals (2.63 gpg), fewest among playoff teams, during the regular season. Look out for Zach Parise, who became a 30-goal scorer in his second NHL season and had six goals in six games against Tampa Bay. Scott Gomez had a mediocre year but was their best offensive player in the first round. Rochester native Brian Gionta picked up his game in the playoffs, too, with five goals. The Devils' strength remains their trapping defense. They force teams into playing a methodical style, which could be unnerving for a skating team like Ottawa.

Senators update: Eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games. If predictions were based on the first round, the Senators would be Stanley Cup favorites. They were that good in dominating the Penguins. Ottawa has the skill and experience required to win the whole thing. Daniel Alfredsson, perhaps still stinging from Jason Pominville going around him for the clinching overtime shorty last season, was a beast in the first round. Their scoring comes from everywhere, and their blue line might be better without Zdeno Chara than it was with him. The Sabres are the only team in the conference with a more balanced lineup, and that's arguable. The biggest question for years has been the Sens' goaltending. Ray Emery might be their most improved player since last year. He's a much quieter goaltender than he was a year ago, when he was all over the crease. Can he hold up?

Outlook: It would only be appropriate if the Senators and Sabres revisited, in the conference finals, a rivalry that has been brewing for years and boiled over this season. After years of postseason failure, Ottawa appears ready to make a serious run. Senators in six games.

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>Western Conference

Detroit vs. San Jose

Red Wings update: Eliminated the Calgary Flames in six games. The Red Wings had a good scare thrown into them after dominating the first two games when the Flames knotted the series through four games. It's exactly what the Red Wings needed after getting bounced in the first round last season. Defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom was terrific on both ends while playing nearly 30 minutes a game against the Flames. Johan Franzen's series winner in the second OT was a shocker, but it was hardly a surprise. Lidstrom had the primary assist. The Red Wings' best defense is offense. Detroit produced the most shots per game (42) and allowed the fewest (21) going into the second round. Dominik Hasek had a 1.57 GAA and a .922 SP, impressive numbers that were aided by the Red Wings' suffocating style that limited opponents to 199 goals during the regular season.

Sharks update: Eliminated the Nashville Predators in five games. The Sharks have reached the second round three consecutive seasons but have never advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. Joe Thornton is their big gun and best playmaker, but San Jose is solid across all four lines. San Jose scored three or more goals in all four victories over Nashville. Coach Ron Wilson tossed center Patrick Marleau on the wing with Thornton and Bill Guerin for the winner in Game Five, a good move. Marleau scored the winner off a pass from Guerin. San Jose has won 16 of 25 games, including playoffs, since adding Guerin at the trade deadline. He was held to two assists by Nashville, but he can score at any time. Goalie Evgeni Nabokov was solid in the first round but can play better.

Outlook: The Red Wings are a superpower, but they looked vulnerable against the mediocre Flames. Look for the Sharks to split on the road and knock off the top team in the West in six games.

Anaheim vs. Vancouver

Ducks update: Eliminated the Minnesota Wild in five games. It's a good sign when Teemu Selanne is limited to one goal and one assist in a playoff series, and the Ducks breeze into the second round. Coach Randy Carlyle must sleep peacefully knowing he has a terrific goaltending tandem in Ilya Bryzgalov and J-S Giguere, both of whom played well in the first round. Bryzgalov gave up four goals in the first three games against Minnesota before getting roughed up for four more in Game Four. No problem. Giguere came out of the bullpen in the fourth game and won the series in the fifth. Anaheim had the best power play in the opening round, scoring five goals on 19 opportunities. Selanne struggled, but Ryan Getzlaf (2-3-5) picked up the slack.

Canucks update: Eliminated Dallas in seven games. Decisive victory over Stars was first after six straight losses in which the Canucks could have clinched a series. Vancouver scored one power-play goal in the opener but failed to score with the man advantage in five straight games before netting two in Game Seven. Ex-Sabres winger Taylor Pyatt and Trevor Linden led the team in scoring in the first series with five points each. And they still won? The Sedin twins combined for just two goals and were a combined minus-6 before Henrik scored in Game Seven. They'll need to play better for goalie Roberto Luongo, who held the Stars to two or fewer goals in each of the final six games to keep Vancouver in the series.

Outlook: The Canucks' offensive problems are bound to catch up to them against the Ducks, who are deep along the blue line and have goaltending to match. Anaheim should win the series in six games.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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