Playing seven games in the first round is considered to be a curse that dates all the way back to 1992, when the Pittsburgh Penguins had to beat the Washington Capitals in seven games in the first round before beating the Chicago Blackhawks for the Cup.

But with perhaps three of the biggest matchups this playoff season all going to seven games, it may be time for that curse to be broken.

There is no doubt that Vancouver has had trouble the last three games, blowing a three game lead to the Blackhawks this series.

They are now sweating it out before tonight’s game seven a game that may see history repeat itself as the Blackhawks prepare to send the Canucks home for the third year in a row.

The Canucks also have the curse of the President’s Trophy on their shoulders as only the Red Wings have won the Cup since 2003 after winning the President’s Trophy.

While the Canucks played their best game of the series on Sunday according to coach Alain Vigneault (via NHL.com), they need to step it up one more time if they expect to make it out of the series alive.

Another big Game 7 we will see tonight is the Philadelphia Flyers taking on the Buffalo Sabres in a series that has been back and forth since its first game.

While the Flyers have put two back to back wins together in this series (Games 2 and 3), they have also had a duck-duck-goose type of goalie situation.

This may be the hardest series to call as there is definitely no clear indication of the momentum going one way or the other and it has taken overtimes in both Games 5 and 6 to declare a winner.

This may be the game to watch for this round.

The Tampa Bay Lightning refuses to let the Pittsburgh Penguins leave the first round without a fight as they have put two impressive back-to-back games together, forcing the Penguins to work for Round 2.

This series saw a 2OT in game four that declared Pittsburgh the winner, but that game may have taken all the energy Pittsburgh had as the last two games have been won by a combined 14 points compared to the Penguins’ four points.

This leaves the door wide open for the Lightning unless the Penguins can get back in gear at home on Wednesday to close out this intense series.

While the Red Wings, Nashville Predators, Washington Capitals and the San Jose Sharks are not a shabby list of teams that have closed out their series’ in six games or less, the teams going to game seven also have some impressive credentials, including both teams in the Stanley Cup Final last year.

It is not to be forgotten that the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins may also go to seven games in their series if the Canadiens pull off a win tonight.

If there was any year for the seven game curse to be broken, a feat the last 32 teams could not do, this is the year.

And with the pace of the playoffs this year, it is definitely a feat that would fit right in.

Read more Buffalo Sabres news on BleacherReport.com

Move over, Kate Smith. Make room for the fat lady.

Tell her to limber up those vocal chords, too. Because the Philadelphia Flyers are done.

There will be no magical trip to the Stanley Cup Finals this year. The Prince of Wales Trophy is already looking for another owner. It's over.

Last year, the injuries worked out. Simon Gagne made it back in time. Jeff Carter made it back in time. This year, the Flyers stars are leaving the ice. There's no Pronger, no Carter, no hope.

It was extinguished yesterday. The Flyers returned from a loss in Game 4 in which they came oh-so-close to scoring but were denied at every turn, again, by Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller. Game 5 was in their building. The stakes, already high, were raised with Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff's calling the Flyers "whiners" afterward. There was no way around it. Philadelphia had to win.

Less than four minutes in, it was 2-0 Buffalo. Just under 12 minutes later it was 3-0 and goalie Brian Boucher was gone. Two remarkable periods followed in which the Flyers fought desperately, and succeeded, to tie the score, but it was all undone when Tyler Ennis scored for the second time in the game, and the playoffs, 5:31 into the extra period.

It really was a great comeback. James van Riemsdyk, Andrej Meszaros and Danny Briere scored consecutive goals to breathe life back into a lifeless game.But ultimately, it doesn't matter. It's still a loss, and it hurts as much as a 9-0 slaughtering would have. There's too much for the Flyers to do.

They have to go to Buffalo and win. They have to come back home, where they're 1-2, and win. They have to hope they don't run into red-hot, Olympic Ryan Miller 2.0 either one of those games. They have to hope the goalie that has two shutouts on them in five games doesn't catch fire one of those two matchups.

It's not happening. The Flyers had two windows. They had Game 4, in which a win would have buried Buffalo 3-1, and they had Game 5, in which a win would have given them series control. They blew them both.

The Flyers could make it back to the Wells Fargo Center (after all, they won in Buffalo in Game 3), but they won't make it out. There are a maximum of two games left in Philadelphia's season. Enjoy it while you can.

After this, it's time to think about what needs to be done to improve the team. Addressing the goaltending situation sounds nice. That's probably the first bullet point, seeing as the Flyers' last two series have seen all three of their goalies yanked at one point.

Whatever the Flyers choose to work on in the offseason, they had better decide fast. It'll be here before they know it.

Read more Buffalo Sabres news on BleacherReport.com

The physicality of this series between the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers has been the definition of playoff hockey. It has been impressive to see the Sabres raise their game to a level that was rarely seen in the regular seasons and while fans may be disappointed in Game 3’s final score, the mistakes were easy to pinpoint and most importantly, easy to fix.

The first period seemed to flow directly from Games 1 and 2 and the high intensity was evident as was the loud hometown crowd that came out to cheer on their beloved Sabres.  With the new reign of owner Terry Pegula, there was certainly some extra excitement in the air. 

At the 3:40 mark, Patrick Kaleta was put in the box for roughing as he protected goaltender Ryan Miller—a penalty that, in my mind, was one worth taking. Sending a message is what Kaleta does best and starting the game off in this fashion seemed almost acceptable.

Unfortunately, at 4:42 the Flyers’ Jeff Carter scored on the power play giving the Flyers the first goal of the game. The pace and momentum of the game continued throughout the first period and the Sabres' Drew Stafford tied it at 11:55, much to the relief of the capacity Buffalo crowd. Stafford now has five goals in less than a month and his play seems to be at a new level as well. 

With 3:20 left in the period the Sabres were given a gift, a double minor on Flyer Scott Hartnell for delay of game. The Sabres were unable to capitalize on this and the frustration seemed to begin to mount at that point and for the rest of the game the Sabres seemed to play at a level of uncertainty that wasn’t reflective of the numbers on the score board. 

While the crowd was certainly a factor in the first, they were quickly quieted in the second period.

The second started with the buzz of Patrick Kaleta’s absence from the ice which was later announced as being due to an upper body injury. That seemed to take a little out of the Sabres’ sails.

Meanwhile, former Sabre Danny Briere added another score for the Flyers at the 17:16 mark and that was where the Sabres official lost their momentum. They certainly battled hard to get it back but just couldn’t seem to get far enough up that proverbial hill.

With 3:16 left in the second, the Flyers put another point on the board thanks to Nikolay Zherdev putting the Flyers up 3-1. With just two minutes to go in the second, the SOGs were the tell-tale factor: Flyers 13, Buffalo 4. While the Sabres seemed to dominate the puck consistently, the shots to the net were not good enough for the laws of probability. 

The true warrior of the night was, without a doubt, Nathan Gerbe. His play was nothing short of outstanding and anyone watching the game will tell you that he was the on-ice leader for the Sabres. He was simply hustling the entire night and making himself part of plays at every opportunity. There were some incredible scoring opportunities for the Sabres at the end of the period as well.  

Gerbe’s hard work finally paid off with 1:48 left to go in the second when he sent a rocket through the five-hole of Flyers goaltender Brian Boucher for one of the more comical sights of the night. Boucher was in his stance with his legs open in a V as Gerbe’s shot came out of nowhere. Boucher bent down almost perpendicular to the ice and peered through his legs to see if the puck had actually gone in the net, which it did.

Going into the third with only a 3-2 deficit, the Sabres seemed to be slowly running out of gas. At the 13:01 mark they found themselves with a 5-on-3 power play for about 1:15 and were unable to capitalize on it or the 5-on-4 that followed. Yet they continued to battle, even against some questionable if not outright illegal moves by the Flyers. 

Earlier in the game the Flyers made a substitution during a break in play as the referees consulted on a call and then, late in the third with the heat turned up high around his net and the Sabres making some serious threats to tie the score, Boucher inexplicably ripped off his mask to get a stoppage of play whistle claiming that something was wrong with the straps on his mask, which wasn’t the case at all—gamesmanship a la the Flyers.

With a little under two minutes left in the game, the Sabres pulled goaltender Ryan Miller—a move which I felt was going to be fruitless considering the pace of the game—and with just 17.8 seconds left on the clock, Kimmo Timonen scored the open-netter to make the final score 4-2.

The Sabres outshot the Flyers 37 to 26 yet couldn’t make them count. Their SOGs were predictable for the most part and Boucher was ready. Their puck handling in the offensive zone seemed tentative at times and they were hesitant to bring the puck deep into the zone, giving Boucher plenty of time to prepare and with rarely much traffic in front of him, he was able to make the saves keeping the Sabres to just two goals.

What needs to be done in Game 4? Continue keeping the tempo and pace of the game, ease up on the excessive passing in the offensive zone and make bolder moves to get deeper into Flyers territory to make those SOGs more effective. 

Additionally, let’s start getting some more bodies in front of the Flyers net whenever possible. Based on Boucher’s panic move in the third, removing his helmet to stop play, he certainly wasn’t comfortable with all that confusion in his area—something that the Sabres hopefully took note of and will use to their advantage on Wednesday when they again host the Flyers at HSBC Arena.  

Read more Buffalo Sabres news on BleacherReport.com

While many consider the Sabres to be a one and done team in the playoffs, I have to respectfully disagree.   After watching the first period and part of the second in their first round match up with the Philadelphia Flyers, I am confident that my “10 Bold Predictions” are indeed true to form.  The pivotal point in just about every one of these predictions is one person – Terry Pegula.

The emergence of an owner who is the antithesis of his predecessor and someone who is not only reaching out to the fan base but to the players as well is creating an atmosphere that is reminiscent of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champions.  He is developing an environment where people want to be and like any good employer, he understands that valuing your employees benefits everyone and provides a ripple effect that will have infinite returns. 

Begin Slideshow

The Buffalo Sabres were able to take home ice advantage from the Philadelphia Flyers by grinding one out in a 1-0 victory. 

Ryan Miller made 33 saves on his way to his second career shutout. Patrick Kaleta had the games lone goal off of a rebound in the third period.

Here are four keys to the game that led to a Sabres victory.

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Stay tuned here for live blog coverage of the first game of the Sabres-Flyers Eastern Conference quarterfinals series.

It appears that both no. 44 defensemen will be out tonight. While it has been much publicized that Chris Pronger's absence will be a big loss for the Flyers, Andrej Sekera's presence will be equally missed by the Sabres. 

This, along with the play of rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, will be two things to watch for throughout the game. 

Read more Buffalo Sabres news on BleacherReport.com

The NHL Playoffs 2011 are underway, but the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers will wait until Thursday night to begin what should be another classic series between the two Eastern Conference foes.

To get a better feel for the Sabres opponent, I touched base with Freddy Doll, Philadelphia Flyers FC here at B/R. 

Here's what he had to say regarding the Sabres/Flyers first-round matchup

(I'm a Bills FC, but I'm a huge Sabres fan too. Imagine that.)

Q1: What are your general thoughts about the Flyers heading into the playoffs?

A1: The Flyers may have been on a skid heading into the playoffs, but I fully believe that they won't have a problem ramping it up in the playoffs. I believe they feel it is their time to prove to everyone that they can get it done. I expect them to come out hard in this series.

Q2: What advantages do the Flyers have over the Sabres?

A2: Depth. The Flyers had seven 20+ goal scorers and Ville Leino had 19. Not to mention, that even with sitting games out, Zherdev had 16 goals and Andreas Nodle had 11. So, the Flyers had 10 forwards with 10+ goals. This should cause match-up problems when the Sabres try to decide who their top defensive pair should go up against.

Q3: What advantages do the Sabres have over the Flyers?

A3: I would have to say the experience of Ryan Miller. Miller and Sergei Bobrovsky had an almost identical GAA and SV% this year. However, Miller has the Playoff experience.

Q4: How will the injuries to Pronger, Betts and Briere affect the team? Which player can they not win without?

A4: Reports from the Flyers camp is that Briere and Betts will play Game 1. Pronger is a game time decision for Game 1. I believe that the Flyers can win even with their injuries. Their depth is ridiculous, and they are now even better with the call-ups that they made.

Q5: Who must step up if the aforementioned players aren't back from injury or return and aren’t 100%?

A5: If Pronger cant go, then whoever plays for him, whether it's Danny Syvret, Matt Walker, Nick Boynton, or Erik Gustafsson. Whichever player plays in place of Pronger will have all eyes on them. The defensemen will have to play better than average because the media will have a field day with “if Pronger was here….”

Q6: Who’s the wild card or X-factor for the Flyers in this series?

A6: No doubt it’s Nikolay Zherdev. His offense could be valuable, if he can please the coaches enough to stay in the line-up. If you want a call up that could become a wild card, look for either Mike Testwuide or Eric Wellwood to be able to make an impact if they are needed.

Q7: Prediction for first-round match up with the Sabres?

A7: I'm going to say Flyers in 6. I think the Flyers’ offensive depth will prove too much for Ryan Miller and the Sabres defense corps

 

(I'll be answering some questions from the Sabres perspective. Look for it on Freddy's page tomorrow)

Read more Buffalo Sabres news on BleacherReport.com

The NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs are upon us once again!

This year is going to be a good one. There are plenty of great teams in the field of 16, and each one could make a run for the Cup. The following picks are based partially on statistics, partially on my heart, and mostly on my gut. They don’t represent extensive research or analysis—just the observations and feelings of a life-long hockey fan.

You’re probably going to think I’m crazy. That’s okay. That’s what the 2011 NHL Playoffs are all about. So without further ado:

 

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals 1: #1 Washington Capitals vs. #8 New York Rangers 

Result: #8 New York Rangers in six.

I had a lot of trouble (and I mean A LOT of trouble) picking this series. My gut tells me to go Rangers, but my head tells me that it will be the Caps. In the end, I have to listen to my emotions and say New York, but I could see this series going either way. For the Caps to win, they’ll need a balanced attack and a strong performance from their young goalies. For the Rangers to win, their young defense needs to hold up against the talented Caps forwards and Marian Gaborik must play like the superstar they pay him to be. But because of the Rangers team-first system, solid defense, and Henrik Lundqvist, I think the Rangers will steal this series from the Caps.

 

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals 2: #2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. #7 Buffalo Sabres

Result: #7 Buffalo Sabres in six.

The Flyers enter the playoffs on a 7-7-6 run in their last 20 games, hardly the record of a team ready to dominate a first round series. The Sabres, on the other hand, enter the playoffs with a 13-4-3 record over the past 20 games, including an 8-1-1 in their last 10. Those 13 wins include victories over fellow playoff participants New York, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Montreal, and Boston. Philly has been as cold as they come lately, and with no guarantees on Chris Pronger’s return and a rookie goalie in net (Russian Bobrovsky), it could be a tough series for the Broadstreet Bullies. The Sabres are on fire, and while they may not sweep Philly, they will come away with a first round win.

 

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals 3: #3 Boston Bruins vs. #6 Montreal Canadiens

Result: #3 Boston Bruins in five.

The rivalry associated with this match-up is epic. You can go back through the history books and find amazing game after amazing game. This series will provide at least four more games for the history books. It’s going to be an intense series, if only because of the Zdeno Chara-Max Pacioretty incident from earlier this season. Boston has been playing great hockey lately (including a 7-0 win over the Canadiens just a few weeks ago), while Montreal has been merely pedestrian. Throw in a Vezina front-runner in Tim Thomas, and you’ve got a Boston team that should handle Montreal with ease.

 

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals 4: #4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Tampa Bay Lightning

Result: #5 Tampa Bay Lightning in seven.

This will be one of the most tightly contested first round series. Both teams are evenly matched, especially with the Penguins missing some firepower on offense. Tampa Bay packs plenty of punch on ‘O’ themselves, and goalie Mike Smith has been playing great hockey since his recall from the AHL. This one is going to go down to the wire, and I think the Lightning will come out victorious.

 

Western Conference Quarterfinals 1: #1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #8 Chicago Blackhawks  

Result: #1 Vancouver Canucks in six.

It’s tough to argue against Vancouver having been the best team in the NHL this season, as they've dominated a very tough conference all season long. Chicago might be the defending champions, but they’re not the same team who hoisted the Cup last June. Though they haven’t exactly played poorly this season, they just barely snuck into the playoffs in a very competitive Western Conference. No disrespect to the Blackhawks, but Vancouver will control this series. Granted, Vancouver has a long history of playoff struggles, but this looks like a team ready to shake the monkey off its back.

 

Western Conference Quarterfinals 2: #2 San Jose Sharks vs. #7 Los Angeles Kings

Result: #2 San Jose Sharks in five.

A few weeks ago, I would have been tempted to pick an upset and go with the Kings here. But after losing Anze Kopitar on March 26th for the remainder of the year, I don’t think they have enough firepower to fend off the Sharks, especially with Justin Williams out as well. Jonathan Quick will provide solid goaltending for LA, but San Jose’s offense should be able to dominate the first round. Add in the Sharks' decent goaltending and defense, and you’ve got a quick playoff exit for the up-and-coming Kings. This just isn’t their year, but look for LA to be a playoff team for years to come.

 

Western Conference Quarterfinals 3: #3 Detroit Red Wings vs. #6 Phoenix Coyotes

Result:#6 Phoenix Coyotes in six.

Here’s an upset I can really get behind. Detroit hasn’t been the most consistent team throughout the season, and they have rarely dominated their competition. They score a whole lot of goals, but their goaltending and defense, two keys to postseason success, have both been lackluster. Phoenix, on the other hand, has gotten solid goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov and relatively steady defense. Their biggest flaw is the penalty kill, but if they can stay out of the box, they’re one of the best 5-on-5 teams in the League. Combined with a smart system and a balanced offensive attack, Phoenix should surprise the Central Division winners.

 

Western Conference Quarterfinals 4: #4 Anaheim Ducks vs. #5 Nashville Predators

Result: #4 Anaheim Ducks in six.

Much like the 4 vs. 5 battle in the Eastern Conference, the Ducks/Preds series will be a good one. Anaheim boasts Maurice Richard Trophy-winner Corey Perry and linemates Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf, while Nashville answers with one of the top Vezina candidates in Pekka Rinne and arguably the best defensive pairing in the entire NHL in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. The contrasting styles will be interesting to see—Anaheim’s high flying offense against Nashville’s conservative, defensive-minded approach. Anaheim's biggest question is who will be between the pipes, as both Ray Emery and Jonas Hiller are battling health problems. Dan Ellis has looked good in relief, but is he ready to carry the load? The goalie situation is a big one for the Ducks, but I think Anaheim will still find a way to get past the Preds.

 

Recap:
#8 New York Rangers over #1 Washington Capitals
#7 Buffalo Sabres over #2 Philadelphia Flyers
#3 Boston Bruins over #6 Montreal Canadiens
#5 Tampa Bay Lightning over #4 Pittsburgh Penguins
#1 Vancouver Canucks over #8 Chicago Blackhawks
#2 San Jose Sharks over #7 Los Angeles Kings
#6 Phoenix Coyotes over #3 Detroit Red Wings
#4 Anaheim Ducks over #5 Nashville Predators

 

Eastern Conference Semi-Finals 1: #3 Boston Bruins vs. #8 New York Rangers

Result: #8 New York Rangers in six.

Call me a homer, but if I somehow get the first round correct and the Rangers play Boston in the second round, I think New York will be advancing to their first Conference Final in over a decade. Both teams play a similar style, but the difference will once again come from Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers came back from a 3-0 deficit to defeat Boston just before the season ended, and though now-injured forward Ryan Callahan was a big part of that comeback, the Rangers will be firing on all cylinders after a big upset of the Capitals. I think that will translate to success against Boston.

 

Eastern Conference Semi-Finals 2: #5 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. #7 Buffalo Sabres

Result: #7 Buffalo Sabres in five.

Everybody must think I’m insane by now, but if there’s one thing the NHL playoffs have taught us, it’s to expect the unexpected. The Lightning feature some impressive offensive depth, but I think this is as far as their scoring will carry them. Buffalo will be rolling after a series win over Philly, and a balanced offensive attack and solid goaltending from 2009 Vezina winner Ryan Miller will be enough to down the Lightning in rapid fashion.

 

Western Conference Semi-Finals 1: #1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #6 Phoenix Coyotes

Result: #1 Vancouver Canucks in five.

Maybe I seem a bit more sane now. Yes, like a lot people, I have Vancouver winning their semi-final matchup against whomever it may be. Despite Phoenix's big upset over Detroit, I think Vancouver can shake the playoff curse and advance to the Conference Finals. They are a much deeper team than in past years, featuring gritty, blue collar players who will help round out a talented Vancouver squad.

 

Western Conference Semi-Finals 2: #2 San Jose Sharks vs. #4 Anaheim Ducks

Result: #2 San Jose Sharks in seven.

This would be an awesome battle of two California teams. They match up pretty well on paper, and I see this one being a tough battle all the way down to game seven. It will be a great offensive show, but San Jose definitely has the edge because of their defense and goaltending. The experience of Antti Niemi will be huge for the Sharks and, in the end, Anaheim won’t be able to keep up with San Jose.

 

Recap
#8 New York Rangers over #3 Boston Bruins
#7 Buffalo Sabres over #5 Tampa Bay Lightning
#1 Vancouver Canucks over #6 Phoenix Coyotes
#2 San Jose Sharks over #4 Anaheim Ducks

 

Eastern Conference Championship: #7 Buffalo Sabres vs. #8 New York Rangers

Result: #7 Buffalo Sabres in six.

Back to the insanity. The 7-seed versus the 8-seed. When did I become Eric Lindros (bad concussion joke…)? But I see this playoff series as a legitimate possibility. And I see the Sabres continuing an improbable run. I hate to pick against my Rangers, but at this point, I think Lundqvist will be feeling the effects of a long, long season. Buffalo has been a tough opponent for the Rangers all year long, and this series will be no different. The Sabres will advance to the Cup finals in this one.

 

Western Conference Championship: #1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #2 San Jose Sharks

Result: #2 San Jose Sharks in six.

Well, here comes that bad playoff luck for Vancouver. On paper, the Canucks are definitely the better team but San Jose is no pushover, and they’ll give Vancouver all they can handle. The Sharks are a legitimate Cup contender, and they’ll knock off the Canucks here to advance to the Final. How awesome would it have been to see a New York-Vancouver final, a repeat of the 1994 Stanley Cup final?

 

Recap
#7 Buffalo Sabres over #8 New York Rangers
#2 San Jose Sharks over #1 Vancouver Canucks

 

Stanley Cup Championship: Buffalo Sabres vs. San Jose Sharks

Result: Buffalo Sabres in seven.

And here’s one that nobody saw coming. The Buffalo Sabres are your 2011 Stanley Cup Champions. Am I insane? Yeah, probably a little bit. But could this happen? Of course it could. Hockey has been all about parity since the lockout, and a Sabres victory would just provide more of the same. The Sabres have a great goaltender in Ryan Miller, a deep, balanced offense, and a steady defense. They play hard with a consistent team effort, and that’s exactly the kind of team you look for to make a deep run. San Jose will put up a great fight, but look for the Sabres to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup in June.

 

Recap
Eastern Conference Champion: Buffalo Sabres
Western Conference Champion: San Jose Sharks
Stanley Cup Champion: Buffalo Sabres

 

So there you have it. Dustin Glasner’s predictions for the 2011 NHL Playoffs. Call me crazy. Call me insane. But that’s the best part about the NHL—anything can happen! Regardless of whether I’m right, kind of right, or completely, flat-out wrong, this is going to be a great postseason for hockey.

Enjoy the playoffs! May your team score many goals, your goalie make many saves, and your captain lift the Cup when it’s all said and done.

 

Article by the Penalty Flag Sports Blog and Dustin Glasner (Featured NHL Journalist)

 

 

Read more Buffalo Sabres news on BleacherReport.com

Following a 5-2 loss to the Calgary Flames on Dec. 27, the Buffalo Sabres held a players-only meeting to discuss the direction of the team. They were 14-18-4, defending Vezina trophy winner Ryan Miller was struggling after a late October injury and the website Sports Club Stats, which tracks a team's chances of making the playoffs, gave the Sabres a miniscule 3.42 percent chance of making the postseason.

Other than the players in the locker room that night, nobody knows what was said behind those closed doors but whatever it was, it turned the season around. The Sabres went on to capture nine of the next 10 points and began their ascent from the bottom of the Eastern Conference into the thick of the playoff race.

With improved play from Miller as well as Drew Stafford and Thomas Vanek along with the emergence of the little guys, Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe, the Sabres went 13-4-2 over their next 19 games.

Just as things seemed to be flowing promisingly down the river to the playoffs, the Sabres hit another skid. After three consecutive regulation losses to Toronto, St. Louis and Washington, the Sabres once again looked like playoff outsiders.

The team got the final boost they needed on Feb. 22 when Pennsylvania billionaire Terry Pegula officially took over the team from Tom Golisano.

“From this point forward, the Buffalo Sabres' reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup,” Pegula said in his opening press conference.

The Sabres' record from that day forward was 16-4-4, which was good enough for seventh place in the Eastern Conference. They will begin the pursuit for the Stanley Cup against the second-seeded Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night.

Outside of some ESPN writers, the Sabres aren't being given much of a chance by NHL experts. Most predictions, including those here at Bleacher Report, have Buffalo bowing out in five or six games with Miller being the only reason they survive that long.

Not so fast.

Since Dec. 28, the Sabres have averaged 3.27 goals per game while improving their goal differential by 26 from -10 to +16. Over that same stretch, the Flyers have averaged 3.04 goals per game while improving their goal differential by just 10.

As for defensive stats, since the day after the players-only meeting, the Sabres are allowing 2.69 goals per game while the Flyers are allowing 2.83.

Some may argue that the entire season of statistics favor the Flyers, but what is a better representation of the two teams entering the playoffs, the first three months or the last three months?

Another overlooked factor heading into this series is the health of Miller. I'm not talking about the upper-body injury he suffered against Toronto that forced him to miss four games (Jhonas Enroth filled in admirably).

Instead, I'm talking the amount of rest he has received. In prior seasons, Miller had admittedly been gassed by playoff time because the lack of a backup goalie forced him to play almost exclusively in the weeks leading up to the start of the postseason.

The injury he suffered against the Maple Leafs may turn into a blessing in disguise. By the time the playoffs start on Thursday, Miller won't have played a full game in 16 days. He did, however, get in about 30 minutes of game action in the final two games and showed no signs of rust.

A healthy and well-rested Miller gives the Sabres not only a good chance to win the Philadelphia series, but a chance to make a deep run.

The Sabres also have great depth heading into the playoffs, which will be key if they do advance past the first round. Injuries have decimated recent Stanley Cup runs but with veterans like Mike Grier and Rob Niedermayer battling for spots in the game-day lineup, the Sabres should have no problem filling holes that may arise. Derek Roy is angling toward a possible round two return and, if healthy, he would provide a nice boost to the offense.

The only Achilles heel that I see for Buffalo is on defense. In recent weeks the Sabres defense has allowed countless odd-man rushes with boneheaded mistakes in the neutral zone. They will need to reduce those errors or the Flyers' talented forwards will eat them alive. Miller will be able to clean up some of the mistakes, but he will need some help if the Sabres plan on upsetting the Flyers.

Don't let the seed fool you. Since the calender turned to 2011, the Sabres have been among the best teams in the NHL, and they have a chance to do something special for a city that could use it.

Prediction: Sabres in six, and the run won't end there for Buffalo.

Read more Buffalo Sabres news on BleacherReport.com

Thursday, 7:30 PM can't come fast enough as fellow zelePUCKin writer Matt O'Brien pointed out to me this morning.

First games are huge in playoff series. Winning Game 1 doesn't mean a free pass to the next round, and losing Game 1 is not insurmountable, but starting off with a win really does a lot for team confidence.

The Flyers' Game 1 this year is more important than their Game 1 against New Jersey last year. The Flyers entered last year riding the high of their season-ending shootout over NYR. Oh and the whole underdog thing.

This year they are coming in after losing the conference lead and barely holding on to the division title.

Their last few games highlighted the last month or two of passionless play, and the skeptics have surfaced.

They cannot falter in their series opener. The home crowd will turn quickly, as they are tired of the lackluster performances, and a seed of doubt may creep into the locker room.

As of now the Flyers have a clean slate. The postseason tends to do that. But come out slow and drop Game 1, and they are right back where they were before the clean slate.


Link to Flyers v. Sabres Series Thread in zeleFORUMS
http://zelepuckin.46.forumer.com/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=20&p=61#p61

original article @ www.zelepuckin.blogspot.com

Read more Buffalo Sabres news on BleacherReport.com