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Sabres, Rangers try brash tacks Playoff foes let fly with verbal volleys before series opener Game One: Tonight, HSBC Arena, 7 p.m. * TV: Versus * Radio: 550 AM * Season series: Sabres won, 4-0

The oldest device in the motivational tool box is gathering dust today.

The underdog card, popular since David slew Goliath and played often during the Stanley Cup playoffs, is being shunned by the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers. There hasn't even been time to pull it out. Why? Because everyone's talking about how good and confident they are.

The teams' Eastern Conference semifinal starts tonight in HSBC Arena, and if the best-of-seven series is as intense as the comments leading up to it, fans at both ends of the state should be in for a treat.

The Rangers fired the opening salvos, with coach Tom Renney saying he's not sure the top-seeded Sabres are "the cream of the crop" and pesty forward Sean Avery warning, "I'm going to hurt them."

"We think we're good right now," Renney said, "and we think that we can win this series."

The Sabres, always eager to accept a challenge, responded after Tuesday's practice.

"He better have respect for some guys in here because if they approach it that we're not that good, it's going to bite them in the butt," goaltender Ryan Miller said. "But if he's just trying to prepare his team, it's psychological warfare, and I don't think anybody in here is going to play that game. I don't think we need to.

"We feel like we're a team that's built to win, and we're built to play good hockey. We just have to go out there and execute. We can't worry about what they say. We can only worry about what they do on the ice. We especially can't worry about what their coach says. We're never going to see him on the ice. There's no way to get back at the coach, so to speak, besides winning hockey games."

The confidence shown by both teams is well-earned. The Sabres were the NHL's best in the regular season and dispatched the New York Islanders, 4-1, in the opening round. The Rangers are 17-3-4 in their last 24 games, including a four-game sweep of Atlanta.

"I think if you look at records and the way we've played the last two months, I don't think you can call us an underdog by any means," Avery said. "I think it's going to be a good series, and they're going to have to bring their hard hats just like we are."

The sixth-seeded Rangers have emerged as one of the league's hottest teams thanks to three areas: goaltending, special teams and Avery.

Goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who like Miller is in his second season, has lost just once in regulation since March 16. He has three shutouts and a .940 save percentage in those 16 games.

"He's been playing amazing," New York defenseman Paul Mara said. "Since I got here right at the trade deadline up until our last game against Atlanta, he's been unbelievable for us, winning games, making huge saves."

The Rangers' special teams brutalized Atlanta and will be the Sabres' defensive focus. Jaromir Jagr had eight points in four games against the Sabres during the regular season, and six points came with the man advantage. New York ranks fourth in the postseason on the power play (20.8 percent) and first on the penalty kill (94.1 percent).

Then there's Avery. He runs players and his mouth, and few opponents like it. The Rangers acquired him from Los Angeles in February, and he's experienced just six regulation losses with the Blueshirts.

"He's a very passionate player," Renney said. "Any successful team recognizes how important passion is within their ranks."

The pre-series chatter certainly has stoked the Sabres' passion, which admittedly was lacking for much of the first round. Though they respect New York's run, it's as if they take offense to the Rangers categorizing themselves as equal contenders.

"I don't think we need to scrap anything or change anything just because the Rangers swept the Thrashers," Miller said. "It's a new series. It's zero-zero. Let's start again."

It starts tonight.

"When the puck drops, then I think all the talk kind of goes aside and you've just got to play," Sabres co-captain Chris Drury said. "It's certainly going to be a test, and we're going to be challenged along the way."


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