NEW YORK -- On the surface the Buffalo Sabres are sitting prettier than the last time they headed downstate. They swept their series-opening home games against the Rangers, something they couldn't accomplish against the Islanders. This time, one road win will suffice over the course of the next two games.
Still, there's cause for concern as the series shifts to the Big Apple, former stomping grounds of Yogi Berra, who once uttered the self-evident phrase that continues to resonate: "It ain't over 'til it's over."
Here are three reasons the Sabres should tread carefully into Madison Square Garden this afternoon. And three reasons they might well continue to hold the upper hand:
Slow starts: It's not all that atypical for the Sabres to strain for traction from the opening faceoff. Early in the season they never seemed interested until falling behind a goal or two. But it's a dangerous trait to ride in the playoffs, doubly so as the rounds progress and the competition grows keener.
Nine shots over the first two periods in the Garden isn't going to cut it. They have to sustain some pressure in the New York end early on, which might necessitate giving more time to the Chris Drury and Tim Connolly lines, both of which have shown a knack for penning the Rangers deep.
Maxim Afinogenov: What's with this ongoing postseason stage fright? Afinogenov's struggles of last year might have been excused as nerves that accompany playoff inexperience. That explanation is no longer at his disposal. And if he's still bothered by the wrist injury that cost him weeks near the end of the regular season, then shame on the coaching staff for sticking with him.
Lindy Ruff hit the breaking point at the start of the third period Friday, downgrading Mini Max to a line with Tim Connolly and Adam Mair (not that, as Mair pointed out last week, playing on a line centered by Connolly would be construed as punishment anywhere but on the talent-laden Sabres). The worry isn't that Afinogenov is getting few chances. It's that his frantic, undisciplined attacks are going to cost the Sabres a goal. Or two. Sadly, he's been the primary catalyst behind New York's transition game and the concept of short shifts remains outside his grasp.
Match-ups: Rangers coach Tom Renney has benefit of the last line change with the site shift, and no doubt he'll be looking to get his top line of Michael Nylander, Marcel Hossa and Jaromir Jagr away from Chris Drury, Dainius Zubrus and Ales Kotalik. Jagr & Company against the likes of Daniel Briere, Jason Pominville and Jochen Hecht is a scary proposition given that unit's susceptibility to being anchored in its own end.
Doubtless Ruff will employ on-the-fly changes to dodge less desirable match-ups, which means the greater danger comes off faceoffs in the Buffalo end. Then again, only by winning draws can the Rangers exploit their advantage and Nylander was abysmal in Game Two, losing 15 of 17.
Ryan Miller: Earlier this season, after a game in Toronto, Marty Biron, perhaps in preparation for a post-career analyst's job, broke into a scouting report on his emerging teammate. Biron noted that Miller's as good as there is at playing the angles. He said you can tell Miller is on the top of his game when shots are striking him in the chest and disappearing, nary a rebound to be had.
That's how Miller has performed much of this postseason. He's not giving up many second chances. He's winning the psychological war in that opponents believe only flawless execution will get the puck past him, especially on shots in tight when he has a view. Just ask Miro Satan, who was thwarted on the doorstep in Game Five of the Islanders series. Or Jagr, who was unable to convert from the slot with two minutes left Friday night. Miller made a glove save in the first period on Matt Cullen in Game Two that made it look like he knew where the puck was going before Cullen did.
He's rising to all the big moments.
*R & R: The road & the Rangers. The Sabres were less than overpowering in sweeping the regular-season series, 4-0. Two of the victories were gained in overtime, a third in a shootout. Entering the series it seemed a stretch to conclude they had the Rangers' number. But the longer the trend continues, the more substance it should be ascribed. No longer does New York's ability to hang around substantiate its credibility. Instead, six straight losses suggest the Rangers are unable to finish the job. Could home ice be their salvation? It's always a possibility. But their 23-15-5 record at the Garden, including playoffs, is more than offset by Buffalo's 27-12-4 record, including playoffs, on the road.
*Depth Charge: Nine of Buffalo's 12 forwards have scored through seven postseason games; only Connolly, Zubrus and Hecht remain without a goal. Throw in the the backline contributions, most notably those of Brian Campbell (three goals, three assists), and grinding the Sabres to a halt remains a gargantuan task. The Rangers had their way for 40 minutes Friday night and still came up empty. It's been a common lament of Buffalo opponents for more than a year.