Sunday, April 8, 2007 Updated: April 9, 4:50 PM ET
First-round breakdown: Sabres vs. Islanders
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
Hats off to New York Islanders coach Ted Nolan, who somehow guided his team into the playoffs on the last afternoon of the regular season, in a shootout no less, with an AHL goaltender sporting a picture of Yoda on his mask.
The Islanders never quit even when it meant having to run the table, beating the Rangers, Toronto, Philadelphia and New Jersey in the last week. Their reward? The NHL's best team and Nolan's old squad, the Buffalo Sabres, who tied a 32-year-old franchise record with 113 points.
Poor Wade Dubielewicz. Not only are the Sabres the NHL's most potent offensive team but they also are well-coached and suddenly almost healthy. Poor Wade Dubielewicz.
1. Depth, depth and more depth. The Sabres had seven 20-goal scorers, more than any other team in the NHL. Four players -- Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek -- had 30 or more. What's even scarier is that Tim Connolly, one of the team's leading scorers in the playoffs a season ago, is back after missing the entire season with a concussion (he scored Saturday in his first game back). Likewise, Maxim Afinogenov -- who was enjoying a breakout season when he was sidelined with a broken left wrist (61 points in 56 games) -- is back, giving coach Lindy Ruff an embarrassment of riches.
2. Team of destiny? Nolan said this week that he wasn't coaching as much as trying to make sure his players believed things could happen. Well, that strategy worked out pretty well. Not only did the Isles beat the Rangers in a shootout to start their week but the Rangers somehow beat the Canadiens. Then, after the Isles beat the Leafs, Toronto somehow managed to beat Montreal, setting up Sunday's nail-biter win over New Jersey. Hey, maybe Nolan's onto something. If he can keep his players believing, and keep them from looking at the stat sheets and the papers (where they'll be reminded this is a hopeless cause), then maybe it's not so hopeless.
3. Did we mention Dubielewicz, or as we like to call him, Dubie Howser, Goalie M.D.? After skirting the issue of Rick DiPietro's medical status, it seems pretty clear the Islanders' netminder for life won't be back any time soon, so their fortunes rest with the 28-year-old minor leaguer from Invermere, British Columbia. So, how long can he keep it up? After this week, confidence among teammates shouldn't be an issue. So what if his unorthodox style won't get him on many instructional videos.
4. Let's get physical. If there is one game plan that might work to the Islanders' advantage, it's in wearing the Sabres down with physical play. It's something the Leafs used to great success late in the season. With players such as Ryan Smyth, Mike Sillinger, Arron Asham and Trent Hunter, the Islanders have the kind of team that could make life difficult for the smaller, highly skilled Sabres.
5. Revenge factor. If the old hockey chestnut about having to lose in order to learn how to win is true, the Sabres should be poised for greatness. A season ago, they reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals before bowing out with more than half of their defensive corps sidelined with injury. The Sabres have persevered through significant injuries again this season and seem to be battle-hardened as a result. One imagines that even further misfortune will only galvanize this team.
• Battle of the Ryans. Think it was coincidence that once Smyth was dealt from Edmonton to Long Island the Oilers fell like a stone? Expect Smyth to make himself known early and often to Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller. How slightly built Miller reacts to the kind of crowding Smyth is expected to deliver will be an important part of the series for both teams.
• Sabres: Vanek, a healthy scratch in last season's playoffs as a rookie, has 19 points in his past 13 games. Former Washington Capital Dainius Zubrus has four goals in 18 games as a Sabre.
• Islanders:Richard Park, promoted to the Islanders' top line this week, scored twice Sunday to push the Islanders into the postseason. He scored Saturday against Philadelphia and added an assist against the Leafs, as well. Hunter has one goal in 19 games.
We love a good Cinderella story as much as the next person, but we smell a pumpkin here. Sabres in five.Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.