Close to the vest

With Miller, Sabres well-suited on defense

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / April 13, 2010

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As befitting a club that boasts perhaps the NHL’s sharpest goalie in Ryan Miller, the Sabres gave up only 2.45 goals per game in 2009-10, fourth-fewest in the NHL. But while Miller is considered Buffalo’s go-to gun (he is a candidate to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP), the Sabres’ wave-after-wave attack potted 2.82 goals per game, the fourth-highest clip in the Eastern Conference.

Balance, after all, is what general manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff have tried to achieve.

“I see a team that’s undergone a bit of transformation the last few years,’’ said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli yesterday. “They’ve added more speed up front. You see that in their forecheck and neutral-zone play. Obviously their goalie is a terrific goalie. He’s very hard to beat. We’ve played them well. There’s a defensive element to their game that’s inherent in Lindy’s system and the way Darcy builds his team. It’s not the same type of components, but it’s an emphasis on our team also. From a matchup perspective, you’re going to see some tight defense.’’

Of the East’s top three clubs, Buffalo was the Bruins’ best matchup. Washington’s offensive firepower could have overwhelmed the Bruins. New Jersey, backstopped by Martin Brodeur, could have throttled the Bruins’ 30th-ranked offense and counterpunched with Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Jamie Langenbrunner.

The Bruins went 4-2-0 against the Sabres (two victories came with spare parts Jhonas Enroth and Patrick Lalime in goal), with Tuukka Rask appearing in all six games, posting a 4-1-0 record with a 1.43 goals-against average and a .954 save percentage.

The Sabres, however, will be anything but pushovers.

“It’s going to be a hard game,’’ Chiarelli said. “They compete hard. They’ve got a goal scorer in [Thomas] Vanek who seems to have found his mark this last little bit. I don’t know if they’re getting a couple of their injured guys back. They’ve got some pretty skilled forwards up front. If we forecheck the way we’re capable of doing, I think it will be a good series.’’

Buffalo’s brightest star is Miller, who went 41-18-8 with a 2.22 GAA and a .929 save percentage in 68 starts. The 29-year-old Olympic star went 2-0-2 with a 1.71 GAA and a .947 save percentage against the Bruins this season. Ruff sat Miller for two of Buffalo’s last three regular-season games, resting him for the playoffs.

Miller plays behind a defense, led by Rookie of the Year candidate Tyler Myers (11-37—48, 23:44 of ice time per game), that emphasizes mobility, puck retrieval, and gumming up the middle of the defensive zone. All of Buffalo’s defensemen are considered healthy.

“You’re going to see good goaltending, and collapsing D because of good goaltending,’’ Chiarelli said of both clubs. “You’ll see a lot of traffic — traffic and tip-ins and those types of goals. You’ll probably see those goals decide the games, good goaltending not withstanding.’’

Up front, Vanek ($7.143 million annually) went through an up-and-down regular season. But Vanek stamped an exclamation mark on 2009-10 with a four-goal explosion Saturday in a 5-2 win over Ottawa. Vanek finished with 28 goals, tops on the Sabres. Buffalo also looks to Derek Roy (26-43—69), Tim Connolly (17-48—65), and Jason Pominville (24-38—62), all shifty and skilled forwards, to light up opposing defenses.

Buffalo was slowed by injuries to their forwards late in the season. On March 29, the Sabres beat the Bruins at TD Garden, 3-2, without Connolly (foot), Vanek (groin), Raffi Torres (hand), and Patrick Kaleta (hand). Connolly missed the final nine games of the regular season. Ruff told Buffalo reporters that Connolly skated over the weekend and could be available for Game 1. Jochen Hecht (upper-body injury) was unavailable for the final two games and didn’t skate over the weekend. Drew Stafford suffered a concussion in Game No. 81, and Ruff termed the forward a question mark.

The Sabres remain healthier, however, than the Bruins. Marc Savard (concussion), Dennis Seidenberg (arm), and Mark Stuart (pinkie) are not expected to play in the first round. Chiarelli said there’s a very good chance Andrew Ference, out the last nine games because of a groin injury, will be available for the start of the series. Ference will most likely replace Andrew Bodnarchuk in the lineup. But Ference will still require surgery at year’s end and the injury could flare up once more.

This morning, after enjoying a day off yesterday, the Bruins will convene at Ristuccia Arena for the first of two tuneups prior to Thursday’s puck drop. The Bruins enter the playoffs with a three-game winning streak.

“It makes you more battle-tested. That will help,’’ Chiarelli said of fighting until the penultimate regular-season game to clinch a playoff spot. “You worry a little bit about using energy in that stretch. But at that point, you just want to get in. I like the efforts of the players in that stretch. It makes you more mentally focused going into the playoffs.’’

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