Sabres, Hurricanes built for new game

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – The Carolina Hurricanes and the Buffalo Sabres made great use of the NHL’s new rules designed to increase scoring.

Both of these small-market teams employed aggressive, up-tempo styles that forced their opponents back on their heels and led to more chances. It should be no surprise they are playing each other in the Eastern Conference final.

But what if the game still was played as it was before the lockout? You know, plenty of clutching and grabbing in the neutral zone, and when a player did get free, he faced goalies wearing pads that looked as big as Buicks.

“A lot of people talk about how we built our team for the new system,” Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford said Friday. “If in fact we had to go back to the old system, which we all hope doesn’t happen, I’m not so sure that we don’t have enough blend of players that this team couldn’t play in that system and be successful.”

Buffalo co-captain Chris Drury feels the same about his team.

“You know, we can skate and we have good goaltending,” he said. “No matter what the rules are, I think those are two pretty good ways to win hockey games.”

Few did it better than the Hurricanes and Sabres during the regular season. Each finished with a franchise-record 52 victories – although the addition of the shootout certainly added to those totals – on their way to surprising success.

That is only one of the glaring similarities between these teams. Both have a rookie in net, although Buffalo’s Ryan Miller essentially was the starter from the beginning of the season while counterpart Cam Ward got his spot by default.

Martin Gerber, the No. 1 goalie for Carolina all year, struggled in the opening round against Montreal and was pulled late in the first period of Game 2. Since then, Ward has started every game, and he outplayed New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur in the conference semifinals.

“For him to step in during the Montreal series and do what he did, that’s pretty impressive,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. “To stare across the rink at Brodeur in the next series and end up being the top goalie, you’ve got to be impressed.”

Each team had spectacular stretches during the season. The Hurricanes had a pair of nine-game winning streaks, including one in January that helped them tie the NHL record with 13 victories in a single month. They were the sixth team to do it and the first since Detroit went 13-3 in March 2003.

The Sabres, meanwhile, started off 8-9 before a 36-7-5 run helped them move toward the top of the Northeast Division. They won eight in a row at one point and added a seven-game streak, too.

Carolina won the first three games against Buffalo, with the Sabres getting a bit of revenge on the final day of the regular season. They traveled down to the RBC Center and dominated throughout in a 4-0 victory, a loss that cost the Hurricanes the top playoff seed in the East.

Eight different players had points that day for Buffalo, which had an NHL-high 11 players with at least 40 points during the regular season.

“Even going back to minor league hockey, I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a team that relied on everybody like that, where the seventh defenseman and extra forward are as valuable as your top-line guys,” said another one of Buffalo’s co-captains, center Daniel Briere. “It’s something special. It’s just more fun for everybody.”

That same mentality is evident in Carolina’s locker room, as well, where veterans such as Brind’Amour, Glen Wesley and Doug Weight stand alongside Ward and second-year player Eric Staal.

“It’s just everybody pulling the rope together,” said the 21-year-old Staal, second in the league during the playoffs with 15 points. “I know I’m younger, but I don’t feel like there’s a big rift between us and any of the older guys on the team. We grew up together all year.”

AP-ES-05-19-06 1702EDT

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