New York Rangers winger Sean Avery entered this series with the Buffalo Sabres fancying himself the nastiest hornet in the nest, a player capable of influencing a game through his ability to intimidate, infuriate and drive opponents to distraction.
Avery made no secret of his mission in advance of Game One. He declared his disdain for the Sabres, each and every one of them. He'd have them looking over their shoulders, fretting his presence, casting wary eyes his way. Well, two games into the Eastern Conference semifinals Avery's been all talk, Dainius Zubrus all action. The Rangers want no part of Zubrus. He's crept right under their skin.
Pay no mind that Zubrus was absent from the score sheet in Buffalo's 3-2 comeback victory over the Rangers on Friday night at HSBC Arena. You might as well credit him with nine assists, because every hit he administered -- and they came with a relentless fury -- rendered New York susceptible to what transpired in the Sabres' two-goal third period.
The Rangers were the ones looking over their shoulders. The Rangers were the ones eager to rid themselves of the puck, especially when Zubrus was on the prowl. Chris Drury's tying goal 24 seconds into the third period was the direct result of New York defenseman Marek Malik surrendering possession under duress, or at least the threat of duress. No wonder. Zubrus was lurking.
Zubrus becomes more of a revelation with each passing postseason contest, displaying a game that's in direct contrast to the scouting reports. He wowed with his board work against the Islanders, employing his 6-foot-4 frame layered with 224 pounds to win battle after battle. And now he's introduced the Rangers to a punishing style that had never been recognized as part of his makeup.
Who would have thought Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier could ever score bigger than when he secured Doug Gilmour for Michal Grosek, or Daniel Briere for Chris Gratton? But given the situation, considering what Zubrus has brought to the mix at this vital juncture, acquiring him from Washington at the trade deadline for the potential that is Jiri Novotny ranks among Regier's shrewdest moves.
Count his new teammates among those who had Zubrus pegged as anything but the tornado that he is. They'd heard hard-nosed hockey wasn't his way. They might even have drawn their own conclusions to that end. But where they'd have been without him Friday is tied, 1-1, in games. He was their catalyst on a night when, for two periods, their offensive game was way out of sorts.
"I like him a lot," defenseman Brian Campbell said in wry understatement. "He's a good player. You know, you pick him up at the trade deadline and everybody thought 'Aw, he's a soft player, he's not the physical for the big frame of body that he is.' Well, if he wants to play 82 games soft, I'll wait for it come playoff time."
"It's a tough body coming at you all the time," said winger Jason Pominville. "He's a horse down low and he's finishing checks and everybody's trying to feed off of him. He's someone the team can follow that way."
No one's delivered this many hits at HSBC Arena since Billy Joel was in town. Zubrus flattened the muted Avery. He toppled Jaromir Jagr with a textbook open-ice hip check that had the Rangers barking in his ear as Jagr made a pit stop in the locker room. There's no doubt he'll be the subject of derisive fan taunting, the arch villain, when the series shifts to Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon.
"It's not really a goal to get under somebody's skin," Zubrus said. "The goal is just to play hard, not to give them too much freedom and too much space because they're some of the top players in the league. They can create things if you let them. Whether you're under their skin or not, we're happy that we won two games."
Jagr swatted away talk of Zubrus as if he were a house fly who'd soon be dissuaded. Maybe Jagr's held some of his own spunk in reserve. Maybe he'll thrive when back in the comforts of home. But through two games against the line of Zubrus, Chris Drury and Ales Kotalik he's a minus-1 and without a point.
"It's OK," Jagr said of Zubrus' presence. "If he wants to play like that and be a checker, that's OK."
There will be no disagreement from the Sabres. Zubrus put on a one-man show behind the New York net with six minutes left in regulation, keeping the puck penned with two Rangers on his flanks. The fans ate it up.
"He was just a bear down low," said coach Lindy Ruff. "There was the one shift the whole crowd got behind him. They couldn't take it away from him. He leads in that direction for him. He does a great job for us. That size, with [Paul Gaustad] out of the lineup, is important size for us and important leadership for us."
The Rangers left Buffalo scratching their heads. They had a 33-18 advantage in shots. They put the Sabres in their pockets for two periods. All the major indicators pointed to a New York victory save one: The hits were 35-17 Buffalo, with Zubrus leading the charge.