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Ruff shifts the pieces into winning formation

After Friday's game-day skate, someone asked Lindy Ruff if he had brought up Game Two of the Islanders series in the team's morning meeting.

"No," Ruff said without hesitation. "I don't bring up anything negative."

Ruff has a good reason to be positive at this time of year. Among coaches with at least 40 victories, he has the highest winning percentage (.620) of any coach who hasn't won a Stanley Cup. But in the five Cup series he lost, the Sabres dropped Game Two every time.

So Ruff knows how it feels to get a quick start in a series (his teams are 12-3 in series openers) and watch the momentum slip away in the second game. But he was staring at that possibility after two periods with the Sabres down, 2-1, against a determined Rangers team.

After all the talk about putting their first-round woes behind them, the Sabres were back to playing like a team that's uneasy with the role of Cup favorite. For two periods, they were outhustled and outplayed, and their four offensive lines were struggling to find any rhythm.

That's when Ruff showed why he's such a terrific playoff coach. Between periods, he calmly told his players to stop overhandling the puck. And he decided it was time to cut back from four lines to three and shake up his lineup.

As Ruff says, desperate times require desperate measures. If the Sabres allowed the Rangers to escape with a win, it would be an entirely different series. So he benched Maxim Afinogenov and moved rookie Drew Stafford onto the line with Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek.

The Sabres were a different team when they emerged for the third period. Chris Drury scored to tie it, 2-2, just 24 seconds in. And midway through the period, Vanek scored on a sensational between-the-legs feed from his new linemate, Stafford, for the winner in a thrilling, 3-2 triumph.

"Max has been struggling," Ruff said. "It hasn't been terrible, but there's a time of year where you have to go with hunches. You have to go with who you think is going the best. You put the team first."

It's no accident that Ruff is 49-30 as a playoff coach, fourth all-time percentage-wise. He doesn't overcoach. But he has a sense for when his team needs a tweaking or a nudge, especially at playoff time.

Ruff talks proudly of the fact that the Sabres have four solid lines. But he knew it was time to cut back to three to give his offense a jolt. Maybe he understood that a radical change would deliver a sense of urgency to his team.

"It's one of Lindy's strengths," said Daniel Briere. "You notice it even more in the playoffs. It seems he knows what button to push at the right time -- what adjustments need to be made depending on how we're playing. It's not an easy situation for him or for Max. But he reacted like a real team player, cheering us on from the bench."

Like the exhilarated home crowd, Afinogenov might have sensed what was coming. The Sabres like to make things difficult for themselves. But they're at their best in times of crisis, when they're facing a serious challenge.

Privately, the Rangers had been miffed at the way people were dismissing them after Game One. It showed. They did a much better job of controlling the neutral zone. They were good on the penalty kill, holding the Sabres without a shot during a four-minute power play that left Sabres fans booing in disgust.

But we know how dangerous the Sabres can be when they're behind. For all the talk about their uninspired play against the Islanders, they were behind for only 4:53 of that series. They trailed twice Friday night, and the response was immediate both times. They tied the game in the first period just 50 seconds after the Rangers scored. Then, they came out for the third period, down a goal, and reminded everyone why this town has gone Cup-crazy.

The Rangers bounced back admirably from Game One. Still, it'll be tough to recover from this one. They say a team isn't in real trouble until it loses at home, but that's an NBA saying. It's not so true in the NHL, where road teams win on a regular basis.

The Sabres have been very good on the road during this two-year run. They might be even more dangerous in the hostile environs of Madison Square Garden. It'll be the next big challenge, and it's hard to imagine them losing two games there.

Winning the first two is huge in the playoffs. The Sabres have won the past 10 playoff series in which they won the first two. They're in great shape. Maybe they're not the cream of the crop yet, but even Tom Renney would admit the cream is rising.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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