Thursday, April 26
Toronto at New Jersey, 7 p.m.
Pittsburgh at Buffalo, 7:30 p.m.
Los Angeles at Colorado, 10 p.m.
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -- Defense, schmefence. The Buffalo Sabres aren't fooled by all the talk of how Mario Lemieux and his Pittsburgh Penguins have bought into their tight-checking defensive style for the playoffs.
The Sabres don't discount that their second-round postseason opponents are playing better defensively. Yet, they also understand that the key is shutting down Pittsburgh's potent offense when the best-of-seven series opens in Buffalo on Thursday.
"It's almost impossible -- you know they're going to score some goals," Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek said following Tuesday's practice. "But the question is how many?"
It's a question that makes this matchup intriguing.
The Sabres allowed the fewest goals in the regular season by using a stifling defense led by Hasek, who finished fourth with a 2.11 goals-against average and an NHL-best 11 shutouts.
The Penguins, for the most part, relied on offense. Led by Jaromir Jagr, who won the scoring race with 52 goals and 121 points, and bolstered by Lemieux's midseason return from retirement, Pittsburgh scored 281 goals, second to New Jersey.
It was only over the last few months that the Penguins added a defensive dimension to their game.
The philosophy was enough for the Penguins to allow only 10 goals and eliminate Washington in six games in their first-round series, making a believer out of Capitals coach Ron Wilson.
"For a team to totally change its philosophy so late in the season, hats off to Pittsburgh," Wilson said following Monday's decisive 4-3 overtime loss.
The Sabres can't match the Penguins offensively, and will rely on their defense-first ethic.
"We can't change what makes us successful, and that's being a good defensive team with well-rounded scoring," defenseman Rhett Warrener said. "They're good offensively and they're playing better defensively. We worry about our game now and hope that it's good enough."
The Penguins are just as confident.
They received a remarkable first-round performance from rookie goaltender Johan Hedberg. And then there's the Lemieux factor.
"I think Mario is the difference," said Martin Straka, who scored Monday's game-winner. "He's been unbelievable. He's been showing us he's the guy."
And not the only guy.
The Penguins have two lines that can wreak havoc, starting with Lemieux, Jagr and Jan Hrdina, and followed by Straka, Alexei Kovalev and Robert Lang.
Together, the six combined for 205 goals -- 13 fewer than what the Sabres managed in the regular season.
It's no wonder that Penguins coach Ivan Hlinka can boldly state that: "I think we've got the players that can beat Hasek."
Slowing down the Penguins is utmost on the mind of Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, who will use his top checking line, centered by Curtis Brown, against Lemieux.
"They've got great team speed. They've got a lot of creativity," Ruff said. "And we've got to make it tough on them to use that."
The series is generating plenty of attention in the Czech Republic, which is well represented on both teams.
The Sabres have Hasek, forwards Miroslav Satan, Vaclav Varada and defenseman Richard Smehlik.
The Penguins' Czech natives are Jagr, Hrdina, Lang, Straka and Josef Beranek, all forwards.
Hasek said he's already taken calls from friends back home wondering if they can get tickets to the series.
"Many people are coming, and many are looking for American visas today," Hasek said, laughing.
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