Wednesday, May 17, 2006 Updated: May 19, 1:12 AM ET
Conference finals breakdown: Hurricanes vs. Sabres
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
Forget the small-market/miniscule television ratings angle of this series. If ever there was a series designed to sell the new NHL, this is it. Even the most casual of fans can expect to be blown away by the speed and derring-do of the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes.
Don't even think of getting up from the TV to change the direction of the water sprinkler for fear of missing something dramatic. The Senators did that and look where it got them.
Both teams can score in bunches and will take off and go in five-man units that create lots of offense and a plethora of power-play opportunities. Both teams also have shown a remarkable ability to defy adversity and bounce back from poor outings.
Playing under pressure? Forget it. The two teams are a combined 7-0 in overtime this spring.
In theory, the Sabres, the highest-scoring team in the postseason, represent the more disciplined of the two defensively and their shot-blocking has been a major story of this playoff season. But the Hurricanes can play lockdown hockey, too, as witnessed by the fact that in eight of their last nine playoff games, they have allowed two goals or less.
Throw in the battle of two rookie goalies, who are looking more like Conn Smythe Trophy winners than wet-behind-the-ears kids, and you've got the potential for a whale of a series.
Defensively, both teams rely on six-man units that will make intelligent first passes out of the defensive zone to create scoring chances. Although neither team is blessed with a stud like Chris Pronger or Scott Niedermayer, defensemen on both teams will jump into the play and both teams will rely on their back end to produce offense.
Looking for an edge along the blue line, or in goal, is a difficult chore. Rookie sensation Cam Ward's eight wins tied him for the playoff lead with -- wait for it -- Buffalo's Ryan Miller.
"One team's going to get the job done, one team's not," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said. Well said. Who cares if it doesn't play big outside Cheektowaga or Tobacco Road?
Why Carolina will win: We've stuck with the Hurricanes this far and we're not about to get off the bandwagon just yet. It's hard to believe that the Carolina team that got blown out to start the playoffs against Montreal is the same poised, unflappable Carolina team that rolls into its second Eastern Conference final having won eight of its last nine games.
The evolution is far more subtle than the simple exchange of starting netminder Martin Gerber for Ward, who is second in the postseason with a 1.77 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.
This is a Hurricanes team that absorbed two straight losses to the Canadiens before reminding themselves of what it was that made them one of the top regular-season teams in the NHL. Slowly but surely, they re-established command of the forecheck and sound team defense and haven't looked back.
"It may have been a good wake-up call for us," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said. "Now we had to hunker down, now we had to dig in."
While the Sabres have been dominant in terms of scoring first, the Hurricanes have shown patience, going a remarkable 5-2 when giving up the first goal. No other playoff team comes close to matching that kind of resiliency. In the Canes' fifth and deciding game against New Jersey, they trailed 1-0 and didn't get a shot on goal until midway through the first period but cruised to a 4-1 victory. Simply put, Carolina has the rare ability to get better as the game goes on and that's something the Sabres will not be able to match.
Although the Sabres were able to neutralize what appeared to be an imbalance in skill against Ottawa, the Canes will present an even deeper arsenal. With a so-called third line that often includes Doug Weight, Mark Recchi and Ray Whitney, there will be no reprieve for the Sabres.
Directly linked to this depth is the potency of Carolina's power play. The Canes lead the playoffs in both power-play goals (15) and power-play percentage (27.8 percent), almost twice the efficiency of the Sabres. In a tight series, that might be all it takes.
Why Buffalo will win: Did we mention we really, really liked Buffalo against Ottawa but just couldn't pull the trigger on the upset? Well, it's a little bit of déjà vu all over again in the conference final.
While we admire Carolina's ability to adjust and get better, the Sabres, too, have taken their lumps and just keep getting the job done. Missing top forward Tim Connolly and top defenseman Dmitri Kalinin in the latter stages of the Ottawa series, the Sabres still managed to win two of three to eliminate the favored Sens. Neither is expected to be in the lineup when this series begins, although Connolly is likely closer to returning.
At some point, not having those guys in the lineup is going to cost the Sabres a goal, maybe even a game, and in a series that will be all about the little things, these are the little things that might turn the tide in favor of Carolina.
Still, among the most impressive qualities shown by the Sabres is their ability to generate heroes like they were chicken wings (sorry, had to get one Buffalo wing reference in there). The team is 4-0 in overtime this spring with four different overtime scorers. Only Ales Kotalik has more than one game-winner.
If there is an overall strength, Ruff said, it's the fact all four lines can play the transition game that has been the Sabres' hallmark throughout the season.
"You really don't get a chance to catch your breath," Ruff said.
In a series that really pits two like-minded teams against each other, there are few things that set them apart in terms of defensive play and goaltending. Certainly, both netminders appear well beyond the playoff-jitter stage.
"What I see is that calm confidence," Ruff said of Miller.
One clear difference is that the Sabres have scored first an incredible 10 times in 11 games. They lost the only game in which they did not score first. Given that the Canes have been slow starters in the playoffs, this trend might well continue and could be a boon to the Sabres.
The Sabres also lead the NHL with five shorthanded goals, including the one by Jason Pominville that eliminated the conference's top seed, Ottawa. The Canes have yet to score a shorthanded goal.
What does this mean? The Sabres are a team that jumps out of the gate and will go for it no matter the situation.
It is a style that neither Philadelphia nor Ottawa had an antidote for. But the Canes have been there, besting a Montreal team that tried the same tack. And when the dust clears on what promises to be a wild and woolly affair, it'll be the Canes still standing.
Prediction: Carolina in seven.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.