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The mission's no secret for Tallinder, Lydman

Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman always draw the short straw.

As the Buffalo Sabres' best coverage defensemen, their constant mission is to shut down the opposition's best offensive players. For the next week at least, Tallinder and Lydman have pulled Jaromir Jagr detail.

It's a dreadful assignment, one the Sabres almost certainly will have to win if they are to prevail in their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the New York Rangers.

"We know we have an important role in this, trying to shut them down," Tallinder said. "But you can't think too much about it because then you get crazy in your head. If you play scared, you can't play. You just have to go out there and do it."

Jagr, who won a pair of Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has averaged better than a point per playoff game in his illustrious career. He had two goals and seven points in the Rangers' first-round sweep of the Atlanta Thrashers.

In the regular season, Jagr was the league's eighth-highest scorer with 30 goals and 96 points.

"Jagr's back in the shape from his Pittsburgh days," Lydman said of the legendary right winger. "He's a big, strong guy with unbelievable hands. He's one of the best players in this league ever. It's a huge challenge, and the other two guys are pretty good, too."

Those dudes who sang with Pavarotti weren't bad, either.

Alongside one of the greatest players ever to thwack a rubber disk are the hottest postseason scorer and a dangerous, young sniper.

Michael Nylander centers the line. He had four goals and eight points in making quick work of Atlanta. He had 26 goals and 83 points in the regular season.

Left winger Marcel Hossa chipped in with one goal and two points in the first round, but he proved his potency when he recorded eight goals and 12 points over a 12-game stretch right before suffering a sprained knee that sidelined him the final five weeks of the regular season. Hossa was one of the Rangers' top shootout options, finishing among the NHL's top 10 with three game-deciding goals.

"It's going to be a lot of work," Lydman said. "Those guys have a lot of skill. They can decide games. Jagr can do it by himself sometimes. They can move the puck. They all can score. You can't just shut down one guy.

"We're going to need some big saves, but it's our job to limit the chances against and block some shots, too. There's going to be a lot of desperation on our part."

Tallinder and Lydman have handled tough jobs before. Each had a plus-14 rating in the playoffs last spring, tying Williamsville's Todd Marchant for the league lead.

"They're two guys that are very good at reading the play," Ruff said. "They got great mobility. In Hank's case he's got a tremendous reach that takes away a lot of ice, a lot of time. And his mobility along with that is one of his greatest assets.

"Toni is a little different than that. He's got a little bit more of a physical makeup to his game. He's probably stronger down low. Toni's puckhandling under pressure is a strong suit of his."

Tallinder and Lydman skated with other partners as often as they played together this season. Because of injuries, they dressed for the same game only 41 times.

Each still enjoyed his most productive campaign while healthy. Tallinder had four goals and 14 points in 47 games, the highest point-per-game average of his career. His plus-19 nearly doubled the personal best he established the season before.

Lydman, despite playing just 67 games, finished 16th in the NHL with 167 blocked shots and led the Sabres with 138 hits. His plus-10 was a career-high. He had two goals and 19 points.

"When they get together they play good hockey," Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said. "They have the ability to skate. They don't have to hold. They don't have to hit to make a play. They can skate with the guy. That leaves the ability to stay loose and get the plays in front of the net rather than having to tie guys up and get borderline penalties."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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