Sabres aim for first round upset

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The Independent Online

The Buffalo Sabres tiptoed into the playoffs. Now they're ready to make some noise.

With a 1-1 tie at Washington on the season's final day, the Sabres captured the eighth and final berth in the Eastern Conference. Buffalo will take on the Flyers in the first round, with Game 1 Thursday night at Philadelphia.

The Sabres ended the season on a 7-2-1-1 run, earning 16 of 20 points to secure a playoff spot for the fourth straight year. They are a popular pick to pull off a first-round upset.

"I don't think you have the record we had in the last 10 games with not being an extremely hard-working club," coach Lindy Ruff said.

The 16-team NHL playoffs begin Wednesday. Ottawa plays at Toronto; the Stanley Cup champion Dallas Stars open against Edmonton; and St. Louis, winner of the Presidents' Trophy with a league-best 114 points, entertains San Jose.

Philadelphia rallied from a 15-point February deficit to finish first in the East. Their reward - Dominik Hasek and the Sabres, the defending conference champs.

"When he's on his game, he's tough to beat," Ruff said of Hasek, who has won the last three Vezina Trophies as the league's top goalie. "That's the X factor in the whole equation. Teams that get that great goaltending always have a chance to go a long way in the playoffs."

The Flyers went 3-1 against the Sabres, but didn't face Hasek, who missed the first half of the season with a groin injury.

Buffalo has gotten production from trade deadline acquisitions Doug Gilmour and Chris Gratton, formerly of the Flyers.

"Everybody's talking about Hasek," captain Eric Desjardins said, "but Gilmour and (Michael) Peca are playing good too."

Roger Neilson, the Flyers' coach, left the team late in February to receive treatment for cancer. The past few weeks, the Flyers were faced with turmoil surrounding former captain Eric Lindros.

Lindros missed the final 14 games with a concussion, but the Flyers went 9-4-1. Lindros questioned the Flyers' medical staff for not correctly diagnosing his condition - opening a rift between management and some teammates.

The captaincy was transferred from Lindros to Desjardins late last month.

"The adversity that this club has faced off the ice hasn't made a difference in the preparation and the way the guys have handled it on the ice," center Keith Primeau said.

Neilson and Lindros will miss at least the first round.

Brian Boucher will be in goal for Philadelphia, getting the start over veteran John Vanbiesbrouck. Boucher led the league with a to have an average under 2.00 in 50 years.

"They're a different team from when we last played them," Boucher said. "Hasek is very good and we're going to have our work cut out for us."

The Flyers will have a different goalie in the first game of the playoffs for the fifth straight year.

Also Thursday night, it's Pittsburgh at Washington, Florida at New Jersey, Los Angeles at Detroit and Phoenix at Colorado.

A look at Wednesday's openers:

Ottawa at Toronto

The Senators return to the playoffs for the fourth straight year, despite being without star center Alexei Yashin, who sat out in a season-long holdout.

Toronto won the Northeast Division with its first 100-point season and tied a franchise record for most victories (45).

Ottawa will be without fifth-leading scorer Shawn McEachern (broken left thumb).

Curtis Joseph had a strong season in goal for the Leafs, winning a team-record 36 games.

Edmonton at Dallas

The defending champions were 3-0-1 against the Oilers this season.

Dallas might struggle on the power play if defenseman Sergei Zubov can't play because of a knee injury.

The Stars swept the Oilers en route to their first Stanley Cup.

San Jose at St. Louis

Blues goalie Roman Turek has been on two straight Jennings Trophy winners, awarded to the team that allows the fewest goals. Turek was Ed Belfour's backup last season with Dallas, but didn't play in the playoffs.

Now, Turek, who won 42 games with a 1.94 GAA, leads the top-seeded Blues.

St. Louis was 4-0-1 against San Jose this season.

Thursday matchups:

Pittsburgh at Washington

The Capitals had the NHL's best record since Jan. 1, but went 2-3-1 to close out the season and are seeded second in the East.

Olaf Kolzig brought the Capitals back to the playoffs after a one-year absence, winning 41 games.

The key for the Penguins will be keeping Jaromir Jagr on the ice. The league's scoring champion managed 96 points, despite missing 19 games.

The Caps and Pens met in the postseason in 1991, '92, '94, '95 and '96. The Penguins won four of the five series, although Washington won the opening game each time.

Pittsburgh won the season series 3-1.

Florida at New Jersey

The Devils finished 9-13-2, and lost the Atlantic Division. In turn, New Jersey got a better first-round matchup. The pressure will be on coach Larry Robinson, who went 4-3 after replacing the fired Robbie Ftorek.

The Devils lost opening-round series the past two seasons, despite having the East's best record.

Florida's Pavel Bure was the NHL's top goal scorer.

The Devils went 2-1-1 against the Panthers.

Los Angeles at Detroit

The Red Wings, who finished second to St. Louis, are seeded fourth despite owning the NHL's second-best record. Detroit has lots of firepower, leading the league with 278 goals. Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Nicklas Lidstrom all reached the 70-point mark.

Los Angeles improved 25 points from last season to reach the postseason for the second time since 1993. Luc Robitaille led with a team-best 36 goals and 74 points.

Detroit won the season series 3-1-1.

Phoenix at Colorado

Peter Forsberg, who had 51 points despite missing the first 23 games with a separated left shoulder, is out at least this series after separating his right shoulder last Friday.

Avalanche defenseman Ray Bourque had eight goals and seven assists in 13 games after being acquired from Boston.

The Coyotes have not won a first-round series since 1987 when the franchise was in Winnipeg.

The teams split four games this season.