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Sabres ready to seize moment Miller wants tight D, exuberance harnessed

Jordan Leopold and Steve Montador are old pros at this. They've skated in seven Game Sevens, so the defensemen have been through intense, winner-take-all contests. For most of their Buffalo Sabres teammates, tonight's deciding game in Philadelphia will be a first.

In reality, however, all the Sabres have experienced a Game Seven.

What kid shooting pucks in the driveway hasn't dreamed of the clock inching toward zero, a championship on the line, and it's their time to be the hero? What session of pond hockey or skate-and-shoot shinny hasn't had a moment of "next goal wins," when the pressure and excitement get turned up?

That's how the Sabres are looking at tonight. Sure, the first-round playoff finale against the Flyers is more important than an afternoon playground outing. When the Sabres strip away the extra trimmings, though, it's still just an ideal time to have fun.

"You always talk about Game Seven," Leopold said Monday. "To have that opportunity that I've had to play in a few, it's really exciting. I cherish those games. We're in the moment right now, and we may as well have fun with it.

"We've got a positive, upbeat attitude in here. We're having fun. That's the thing: What do we have to lose? We were counted out in January by a lot of people in your profession. To do what we've done to get to this point is good. We can't be satisfied, no. We've got a big Game Seven, and we get a win there it'd be huge. I think we all know that."

The attitudes and mind-sets could always change at 7:30 p.m. when Wells Fargo Center turns into a madhouse, but the Sabres headed to the City of Brotherly Hate eager and happy to play there.

"What would be a better place to win a Game Seven than to go into Philly?" coach Lindy Ruff said. "I moved the flight up an hour."

The Flyers are just as eager to welcome the Sabres. They have proved their ability to thrive in elimination games. They won Game Six in overtime to force tonight's climax. They were in a 3-0 series hole to Boston last spring and became just the third team in history to rally back.

When it comes to real experience, the Flyers have the edge.

"It helps, but at the same time it's all about going out there and doing it," Philly forward James van Riemsdyk said. "You could have been there before, but if you don't go out and play, it doesn't mean much."

The teams have played the first six games as evenly as they could. They each have three wins, and only one goal separates them (Philly has scored 17 times, Buffalo 16). Each team has won won twice on the road.

For Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, tonight's conclusion will come down to two main factors:

Buffalo needs to return to the tight defense it played during its two shutouts and avoid the odd-man situations on which the Flyers thrived during their victories.

"The times we've beaten the Flyers, we've done a really good job of sticking to one plan all night," said Miller, who faced 49 shots in Game Six. "We can do a little bit better job frustrating them. They're a team that relies on turnovers and getting up ice, and I think if we just keep two, three guys together getting back at all times with good back pressure, it's going to definitely be a frustrating style. It's something I don't think the Flyers have reacted too well to, even in the regular season.

"They were pretty patient early, but I think sometimes they expect to be on offense and they really cheat and push for it. You have to try and make them do that. We have to try and use their strengths as weaknesses, and we have to be the organized team and the team that's willing to play the chess match."

The Sabres need to harness their youthful exuberance and treat their first Game Seven the way they've treated every game since mounting a comeback from 30th place in the NHL.

"Experience has got to start sometime," Miller said. "You don't just all of a sudden become an experienced player and then you have some kind of magical advantage. You have to believe you can accomplish something and go through it with a group of guys. That attitude and that confidence can be in any locker room. We're trying to harness that and use it.

"You have to let the game settle down into just a regular old hockey game. That's kind of what playoffs is all about. There's a lot of energy and a lot of hype, and somehow it always settles into a hockey game."

It's a game that will decide the next step in the Sabres' season. A victory earns them a second-round matchup with the Washington Capitals. A loss sends them home for the summer.

"Everything is on the line, and that can help or hurt some people," Montador said. "I've always taken the attitude that it's a great opportunity. It's something you always think about and talk about when you're a kid.

"It just makes for an exciting game, and it's one of those things you want to enjoy."

The Sabres insist they will.

"I said to the team, 'Wrap you arms around this. Enjoy it. Put a smile on your face,' " Ruff said. "They've got some pressure they're going to face playing at home. We want to get on our toes and play our game."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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