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Sabres must avoid climb into shell Buffalo plans to attack Rangers when possible

There's no more colossal, one-game differential in a playoff series than when a team can either authoritatively resurrect its hopes by winning to make it 2-1, or losing to slip into a 3-0 abyss.

The New York Rangers are at that juncture this afternoon in Madison Square Garden.

The Buffalo Sabres have won the first two games in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal. Prevailing hockey wisdom calls for the Sabres to gird up and play a defensive game in hopes of withstanding the early torrent of desperation the Rangers plan to unleash in front of their fans.

Sabres defenseman Jaroslav Spacek, however, isn't too keen on that approach for today -- or any other day. The NHL's best road team has gotten this far by dictating the action, and Spacek doesn't see any reason to change.

"We want to be hard on their D," Spacek said. "We would give them a favor to back off and play more defensively. Yeah, we've got to play defensively first, but we want to put more pressure on their D and systematically pressure them and pressure them all the time."

As a point of reference, Spacek noted the Game Five, first-round clincher over the New York Islanders. The Sabres appeared headed for a blowout victory and decided to play a safe, passive final period. The frantic Islanders scored three third-period goals before they succumbed, 4-3.

"We had a 4-1 lead and didn't play our game," Spacek said. "Nobody exactly knew what to do. We just want to play our game. All season long we were successful with that, by pressuring them all the time."

The Sabres so far have won the goaltending battle and have managed to limit legendary winger Jaromir Jagr only to a secondary assist.

But the Sabres are coming off a game in which they failed to generate much offense for 40 minutes. They took four shots in the first period, five in the second. They capitalized on two Ranger mistakes in the third period to win.

"They made some good adjustments and we struggled with it," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said.

Ruff is trying to coax every bit of offense out his lineup. He rearranged the wingers on his lines to maximize production late in Game Two.

Ruff dropped Maxim Afinogenov to the fourth line, returned Ales Kotalik to co-captain Chris Drury's line and put rookie Drew Stafford on Derek Roy's line. Those trios remained together at Saturday's practice in HSBC Arena.

"We've got to play our game," Ruff said. "We had this unwillingness to put the puck to the net. It's been our strength on a goal-scoring front all year, the fact we can make great plays. At the same time it becomes a weakness in some situations where teams are doing a good job. I think you have to make a decision sometimes 'Let's get it on net and maybe a rebound will be the best thing we get.' "

Unless the Rangers revamp their strategy, look for the Sabres to try to make softer dump-ins, pressure the defensemen, and forecheck their way to scoring chances rather than attempt one-on-one maneuvers like they did in Game Two.

The Sabres know how to win on the road. Before they won both conference quarterfinal games on Long Island, they finished the regular season with the NHL's best road record, scoring a league-high 24 more goals than their hosts.

"The way we've been playing on the road this year we're confident that we can play that style of game that will do well for us," Sabres defenseman Teppo Numminen said. "The first 10 minutes is going to be huge. We just have to concentrate to have a good start, play defense first and go from there.

"They're going to be pumped up. They know they have to win."

The Sabres defeated the Rangers twice in Madison Square Garden during the regular season. The Sabres have gone 6-0 against the Rangers so far, although twice they needed to score in sudden death and once they needed a shootout to prevail.

"Of course, it's not over," Rangers winger Brendan Shanahan said. "I really believe that we're going home to a place that's been very good to us the last two months. We're going to feed off our fans' energy."

The Sabres don't expect the sixth-seeded Rangers to roll over at home. The Rangers advanced by sweeping the third-seeded Atlanta Thrashers.

"They're a real skilled team," Ruff said. "They did what they did to Atlanta because they're a good team. They're making adjustments and they got players buying into stifling us defensively. . . . They got guys who know what it takes. They got guys that know they have to sacrifice parts of their game."

Said Shanahan: "In the playoffs, it can turn fast. And I'd feel a lot worse if we were being outclassed and outhustled and thoroughly beaten. But I feel like we're going to get rewarded for our hard work."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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