Friday April 23rd, 2010

Maybe it was just the emotions of a double-OT loss that led Lindy Ruff to lambaste the officials in the aftermath of Buffalo's Game 4 defeat, but expect the Sabres coach to preach a different sermon ahead of tonight's must-win Game 5.

As he surely realized after he vented, his Sabres aren't losing to the men in stripes. They're simply not doing enough to beat the Boston Bruins.

That's not to say that Ruff didn't have reason to be ticked on Wednesday. The Sabres appeared to come up on the short end of a couple sketchy whistles, including the goaltender interference penalty against Cody McCormick as well as the boarding charge against Patrick Kaleta that ignited Ruff's quick burn in his postgame tirade.

But if there are two truths to playoff hockey, they are: Brutal calls tend to even out over the course of a series and successful teams find a way to fight through the occasional brain cramp by the officials.

And outside of impressive Game 4 fill-in McCormick and liter-sized winger Tyler Ennis -- how about his set-to's with Zdeno Chara? -- the Sabres simply aren't showing enough fight of late to deserve anything better than the 3-1 hole they find themselves in. That's particularly true when they're playing with the lead. Four times they've opened the scoring in this series and yet somehow they've managed to lose the last three.

That right there is what a highly trained detective might call a pattern.

There was plenty of talk before the series about Boston's lack of pop, and after four games it's clear that goals come as easily to the Bruins as restraint does to Lady Gaga. But the B's have created their advantage with determination, resilience and a consistent willingness to go hard to the net that the Sabres have yet to match.

The key to that might be respect. The Bruins committed to that approach knowing that anything less would give the advantage to Buffalo's superlative stopper, Ryan Miller. It's time for the Sabres to show the same deference to Tuukka Rask.

If they didn't appreciate it before this series, they're leaning it was no fluke that Boston's netminder supplanted last year's Vezina-winner, Tim Thomas, in the Bruins' cage or that he enjoyed a statistical edge over Miller during the regular season.

"He's just gotten better with the opportunities he's been given," Boston coach Claude Julien said after Game 4. "And he's very cool. He's very confident and technically very sound. All that put together makes for a great goaltender."

Rask may lack the experience of the Olympic hero at the other end of the ice, but he's padding his resume quickly, thanks to a knack for making the big save when his team needs it the most.

Consider how this series has turned since the teams split the first two games in Buffalo. The Sabres staged a 2-0 lead in Games 3 and 4, but Rask bought his teammates time in both by preventing the Sabres from stretching it to three. That's clutch.

So is his ability to preserve momentum. Shortly after the Bruins knotted Wednesday's game at 2, Buffalo winger Mike Grier had an uncontested opportunity to bury the puck into a gaping cage and give the lead back to the Sabres. Instead, Rask denied him with a desperate, cross-crease dive that would have been the perfect book-end to Bobby Orr's airborne goal if only it had happened in the Cup final. It really was that special.

And with each big stop and each big win comes a boost in confidence that's going to make him even tougher to solve.

But as the Sabres saw in Game 4, Rask can be beaten...if they're willing to pay the price. Both of their goals Wednesday were the result of a physical commitment. On Ennis' opening tally, it was McCormick taking a hit to make the play. On Steve Montador's, it was Paul Gaustad fighting off the defense to park his caboose in Rask's crease.

But that was it. And that's clearly not enough. Rask said as much afterwards. "I think I spent more energy celebrating than I did in the whole game."

He probably didn't intend to provide the Sabres with bulletin board material -- let's chalk it up to youthful exuberance -- but if that comment doesn't cause them to give their heads a shake, they deserve to spend tomorrow cleaning out their lockers.

The recipe for success may be tough to execute, but it's really simple to understand. Game 5 will be a test of Buffalo's comprehension. If the Sabres are going to extend this series, they need to focus their venom at the Bruins.

Because it's not the fault of the refs that they're losing.

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