By Tim Schmitt
BUFFALO — Believe it or not, a substantial dose of pressure will be lifted from the Buffalo Sabres when the puck is finally dropped tonight at HSBC Arena. With a city yearning for its first major professional sports title, the opening game between the Sabres and the New York Islanders will take the focus off frothing fans and put it squarely back on hockey.
“The city’s sure excited, but that’s the fun part,” Buffalo’s Jason Pominville said Wednesday. “Everybody’s behind us. It’s a great atmosphere. We just can’t wait to get this going.”
With good reason. The Sabres are the healthiest favorite in the Eastern Conference’s first round, an overwhelming pick to defeat a New York team that needed a shootout on the season’s final day to qualify for the postseason.
But in Wade Dubielewicz, a backup goalie who rescued the Isles’ season, Buffalo is preparing for a largely unknown commodity. Dubielewicz played two periods against Buffalo this season, but has just 17 National Hockey League starts in threeseasons.
He is, however, hot when it counts, and the Sabres would prefer to get to him early rather than allowing Dubielewicz to gain confidence. Who has the edge, a goalie that’s unfamiliar with a hot offense or an offense that’s unfamiliar with a new goalie?
“It’s probably a little bit of both,” Pominville said. “I’m sure he’s a goalie we’ll talk about in meetings. He was a great goalie in the AHL and he finally got a shot at playing. And he took advantage of it. We’ll have to make sure we figure him out.”
While Dubielewicz is a mystery, the Sabres offense is not. Buffalo led the league in goals with 309 and added Tim Connolly for the final two games of the franchise’s winningest regular season in history. Connolly should boost a lagging special teams unit that was one of the few areas Buffalo didn’t dominate the league’s stat charts.
“I definitely don’t feel out of place out there (on the power play),” Connolly said. “And penalty killing is just as important. A lot of the focus has been on the power play, but its special teams as a whole that have to get the job done. Those two games already furthered me along. That was a good test for me.”
Connolly is expected to play with Drew Stafford and Adam Mair on what could be a potent fourth line for the Sabres, but Buffalo’s balance is what gives opposing coaches insomnia. The line considered Buffalo’s third to start the season — Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy and Maxim Afinogenov — finished with 87 goals.
And having the home-ice advantage should be just a final feather in the team’s cap, giving the Sabres an edge in their quest for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 37 seasons.
“We’ve worked hard all year. Do we deserve it? I think we do,” Brian Campbell said. “But are they a good hockey club? Yes they are. We’re going to have to be at our best to win.”
Contact group sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, Ext. 2266.