AFTER THEIRinfamous Chapter 11 the Buffalo Sabres began Chapter 12 last week when theyreached the Eastern Conference final for the first time in this millennium.They now face the Carolina Hurricanes, who felt compelled to put HERE TO PLAY,HERE TO STAY on the cover of their 2005-06 media guide to dispel rumors thatowner Peter Karmanos had Allied Van Lines on his speed dial. Yet if you thinkCarolina-Buffalo is a meeting of teetering franchises, think again. The onlything these teams are on the brink of is a shot at the Stanley Cup.
This fast-flowingseries between similar teams--think Penn Relays, only on skates--might lackmarquee value, but Cup cognoscenti are salivating about these exemplars of thenew up-tempo, special-teams-driven NHL. The smallish Sabres were among theregular-season leaders in both power-play scoring and penalty killing, andfittingly closed out the favored Ottawa Senators in Game 5 last Saturday onJason Pominville's shorthanded goal in overtime. Their power-play success ratehas slipped from 21.2% in the regular season to 15.4% in the playoffs (opposingpenalty killers have had some success pressuring the Buffalo point men), butthe Sabres seem to get scoring at any time from almost everyone. Of the 21skaters who dressed in the first two rounds, 20 had at least one point. MaximAfinogenov and Daniel Bri√®re are conspicuously dangerous, but Pominville, theunheralded rookie right wing, is the poster boy for Buffalo hockey. Althoughaveraging just 11:26 per game on the nominal fourth line during the postseason,he has five goals and three assists.
Sabres rookiegoalie Ryan Miller has poise, as does Carolina's rookie keeper, Cam Ward, whohas a sparkling .930 playoff save percentage. Since entering in relief in Game2 of the first round, Ward--not as athletic as Miller but just as technicallyproficient--has played only one poor match behind a team whose intensity servesas his protective coating. The Hurricanes' defense starts with their forwards,especially center Rod Brind'Amour, who owns the face-off circles. (He has won58.1% in these playoffs.) Carolina's most noticeable advantage is its depth upthe middle: Brind'Amour, passing wizard Doug Weight and Eric Staal, therevelatory second overall pick in the 2003 draft. A 100-point scorer during theregular season, Staal ranked second in the playoffs through Monday with fivegoals and 10 assists.
Anothercommonality is stability. There have been 119 NHL coaches since the start ofthe 1997-98 season; these teams have had a total of three in that span. LindyRuff is finishing his eighth season in Buffalo, while Carolina has had PaulMaurice and now Peter Laviolette. The teams' success, says Carolina's JimRutherford, the NHL's third-longest-tenured general manager, "says a lotabout stability. A lot of times when coaches and [general] managers are fired,they are better at their jobs than they were when they were hired.... The valuein [stability] is that when things go wrong, the people who are there generallyunderstand why it went wrong." This postseason everything for these twounder-the-radar franchises has gone right.