In the days leading into the second round, Lindy Ruff noticed a subtle but noteworthy change in the Buffalo Sabres' dressing room. His players had moved past the relief that accompanied beating the New York Islanders and were no longer carrying the burden that comes with being a top seed.
The Sabres' purity was their most charming quality last season as they marched into the Eastern Conference finals. I'll never forget the morning of Game Seven against Carolina, when Paul Gaustad was screaming at the television while cheering for the contestants in the national spelling bee. The Sabres were just a bunch of kids playing hockey, oblivious to the pressurized world around them.
At some point, their innocence was stolen. They had become acutely aware of their potential, and the effects of playing under immense stress showed up when they were uncharacteristically tight for five games against the Islanders. Ruff sensed they were at ease Wednesday, that the simple joy of playing the game had been restored.
So it must have been refreshing to open the barn doors and allow his horses to run free Wednesday night against the New York Rangers. And run they did. The Sabres skated as if they had been released from prison, and they were rewarded with a 5-2 victory over the Rangers in the series opener.
"Our legs were good, our hands were good," Ruff said. "It looked a lot like the team that played most of the year."
Yes, it did.
The Sabres have shown all year they don't simply score a single goal and pull back into a defensive shell. They keep coming, and that's precisely what happened in Game One. They blitzed the Rangers for three goals in about four minutes of the second period, making the end quick and decisive. Just like that, the pressure was released from HSBC Arena along with any oxygen remaining for the Rangers.
New York waltzed into the second round beating its collective chest after sweeping Atlanta, insisting it was different than the team Buffalo beat four times early in the season. Fair enough, but different didn't mean better Wednesday. Buffalo confirmed its superior speed and depth, proved why it finished atop the NHL standings and reminded New York of the dangers ahead.
For a while, the only question was whether the Sabres would break through against Henrik Lundqvist. He had been fabulous for three months, and he was terrific again in Game One before getting humbled in the second period. Vanek scored the first goal when he redirected Dmitri Kalinin's low slap shot before Buffalo knifed through for two more scores en route to shredding Lundqvist.
"A bulk of the pressure is relieved," co-captain Daniel Briere said. "We played a lot more relaxed. We were making plays. The first goal was when I realized, 'All right, we're on our game tonight.' It's part of our confidence coming back."
It was strikingly similar to the first meeting of the season, when New York scored two goals early before Buffalo answered with three in the final 5:08 of the first period and flipped the game upside down. The Blueshirts dared to engage in a speed game that night, and Jaromir Jagr compared the Sabres to a Ferrari. On Wednesday, the Sabres scored four of their five goals off the rush.
Apparently, not that much changed after all.
The Rangers acquired Sean Avery to supply more toughness, but he was an example of how the Sabres can go about winning this series. Avery took two of the Rangers' eight penalties, infractions born from one team desperately trying to contain another and failing miserably. Ruff rolled out two new power-play units that failed to convert early in the game, so it actually could have been worse.
Of course, it helps when Ryan Miller is doing his job. Miller allowed two goals in the third period but was solid in net. He made a big save on Marcel Hossa when the game was still scoreless, had another beauty in the third period when he snagged Brendan Shanahan's slapper through a screen with the Sabres down two men.
New York isn't going to be around long if it continues wearing out its top three lines against Buffalo's four. The Rangers were practically begging the Sabres' fourth line to take over Game One. Blair Betts helped kill penalties, but Jed Ortmeyer and Ryan Hollweg should have stayed in the dressing room.
Eventually, the Sabres capitalized. Adam Mair found Ales Kotalik slicing through the middle, the winger whistled a wrist shot into the top corner and Buffalo was on its way. It's usually how it works when the Sabres are skating well, when the effort is there, when they adhere to their style, when they enjoy the game.
It's all Ruff wanted in the first place.