Buffalo vs. Boston
The two old Adams Division rivals clash in the playoffs for the first time since Buffalo was en route to their Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1998-99. A lot has changed since then (though Sabres’ head coach Lindy Ruff has remained a universal constant). Heck, a lot has changed since just last season, when the powerhouse Bruins of Tim Thomas, Marc Savard and Phil Kessel were the first seed in the Eastern Conference, an imposing offensive juggernaut backed by a goaltender sporting the second best save percentage of all time. Can Finnish rookie netminder Tuukka Rask outduel Team USA hero Ryan Miller, to send an underdog Boston past third-seeded Buffalo into the second round? Can the Bruins’ popgun offense put any pucks in net to support him? Let’s break it down.
Buffalo Offense vs. Boston Defense
Buffalo Offense GVT: +8.4 (Rank: 7th in NHL)
The Sabres’ offense has improved of late, taking what was a league average offense into the top quartile since the Olympic break. It’s amazing that the pundits seem to completely ignore the significance of C Tim Connolly (8.9 OGVT, 11.5 GVT in 73 games) when discussing Buffalo; the recent news that Connolly will indeed return to the Sabres’ lineup for Game 1 from a foot injury suffered on March 26th has a major impact on this series. Ruff will need to put together talented scoring lines to solve Boston netminder Tuukka Rask – And with LW Jochen Hecht (4.3 OGVT, 9.3 GVT) out for the series now, Connolly, RW Jason Pominville (7.6 OGVT, 13.3 GVT) and AHL Rookie of the Year Tyler Ennis (1.1, OGVT, 1.4 GVT in 10 NHL games; 23 G, 42 A, 65 P in 69 AHL games) make for an intriguing first line. Pairing LW Thomas Vanek (7.1 OGVT, 9.8 GVT) with C Derek Roy (10.9 OGVT, 14.3 GVT) also provides the foundation of another solid scoring line. 20 year old rookie phenom D Tyler Myers (7.7 OGVT, 14.6 GVT) provides by far the biggest scoring punch from the blue line for Buffalo.
Boston Defense GVT: +5.6 (Rank: 10th in NHL)
Captain Zdeno Chara (8.7 DGVT, 14.5 GVT) anchors the Bruins’ defense, but he’s pulling a disproportionate amount of the weight this season. Arguably, D Dennis Wideman (3.5 DGVT, 5.9 GVT) had a better 2008-09 campaign than the Norris Trophy winning Chara, but after a season of playing like Superman, Wideman’s been all Clark Kent in 2009-10. LW Marco Sturm (4.2 DGVT, 7.6 GVT) is the team’s best defensive forward––by various metrics––while underachievers LW Milan Lucic (0.8 DGVT, 1.4 GVT) and RW Blake Wheeler (2.4 DGVT, 1.9 GVT) have been liabilities.
Boston Goaltending GVT: +12.4 (Rank 8th in NHL)
Though Bruins’ goaltending ranks 8th by GVT, they’re even better than that with the outstanding Rask (.931 save percentage, 23.2 GVT) in net as opposed to this season’s above average Tim Thomas (.915 save percentage, 8.2 GVT). That said, Boston’s coaching staff did well to limit the 22 year old’s workload this season (By strange coincidence, both Rask and Thomas faced exactly 1,221 shots), hopefully saving him from a Steve Mason-like fate in the playoffs and beyond.
Total GVT Difference: +9.6 Boston Bruins
Advantage: Boston Bruins
Boston Offense vs. Buffalo Defense
Boston Offense GVT: -26.5 (Rank: 30th in NHL)
Oh, what a difference a year makes. A mismanaged salary cap tied up too much money in mediocre and aging forwards, bringing about a quick end to the promise and youth the Bruins showed in 2008-09; GM Peter Chiarelli jettisoned talented young LW Phil Kessel (10.8 GVT in 70 games for Toronto) in the offseason primarily due to cap constraints. Injuries and underachievement further conspired to take the league’s second best offense (3.35 GF/game) in 2008-09 all the way down to dead last in the NHL (2.51 GF/game) this season. Chara (5.9 OGVT, 14.5 GVT), C Patrice Bergeron (5.3 OGVT, 8.9 GVT) and C David Krejci (4.3 OGVT, 9.0 GVT) are the best scorers that the Bruins can muster for the postseason, with Marc Savard (4.6 OGVT, 7.0 GVT in 41 games) out for the season with a concussion.
Buffalo Defense GVT: -6.8 (Rank: 20th in NHL)
Myers (6.8 DGVT, 14.6 GVT) and Henrik Tallinder (6.3 DGVT, 6.6 GVT) provide a shutdown pairing for Buffalo, with veteran D Toni Lydman (3.1 DGVT, 5.4 GVT) another solid defensive presence. RW Mike Grier (2.3 DGVT, 2.7 GVT), RW Patrick Kaleta (0.9 DGVT, 2.1 GVT) and C Matt Ellis (0.6 DGVT, -0.3 GVT) are among the checking line players (third and fourth lines) asked to provide defense ahead of offense.
Buffalo Goaltending GVT: +15.2 (Rank 3rd in NHL)
Great goaltending can make a whole team look better, and that’s what Ryan Miller (.929 save percentage, 32.5 GVT) has done for Buffalo (as well as Team USA). But while Miller should be able to match Rask save for save, keep in mind that he’s only been a slightly above average career playoff performer (.915 save percentage in 34 games) and that he’s faced 2,245 shots between the regular season and the Olympic tournament.
Total GVT Difference: +34.9 Buffalo Sabres
Advantage: Buffalo Sabres
Buffalo Power Play vs. Boston Penalty Kill
Buffalo Power Play Offense GVT: +1.1 (Rank: 11th in NHL)
The Sabres could have used the addition of a power play specialist before the trading deadline to improve their mediocre 17.6% power play. Buffalo relies on Vanek (10 PPG), Roy (10 PPG), Pominville (8 PPG) and Connolly (7 PPG) for scoring on the man advantage, while Calder candidate Myers (3 PPG) quarterbacks the power play.
Boston Penalty Kill Defense GVT: +12.9 (Rank: 3rd in NHL)
The Bruins’ fine 86.4% penalty killing percentage obviously starts with Tuukka Rask, but RW Blake Wheeler and C David Krejci chip in as quality penalty killers for Boston. Unfortunately, D Mark Stuart is out for the series.
Total GVT Difference: +11.4 Boston Bruins
Advantage: Boston Bruins
Boston Power Play vs. Buffalo Penalty Kill
Boston Power Play Offense GVT: -2.7 (Rank: 18th in NHL)
The Bruins spread their power play scoring around a bit more than the Sabres, with 41 year old RW Mark Recchi (8 PPG), RW Michael Ryder (7 PPG) and C David Krejci (6 PPG) left with most of the heavy lifting in Savard’s absence.
Buffalo Penalty Kill Defense GVT: -11.8 (Rank: 4th in NHL)
The Sabres have been the equal of the Bruins’ fine penalty kill, stopping the opposition at an 86.6% rate. D Toni Lydman is Buffalo’s best penalty killing blueliner; the Sabres lose their best penalty killing forward with the loss of Jochen Hecht.
Total GVT Difference: +14.5 Buffalo Sabres
Advantage: Buffalo Sabres
Season Series Results
The short version goes like this: Boston won four of the six contests against Buffalo, outscoring the Sabres 15-11. Advantage Bruins, right? Not quite.
21 year old Jhonas Enroth (in his lone career NHL start) and backup Patrick Lalime took two of Buffalo’s losses, with the Sabres losing by a combined 7-3 in those games. In the four remaining contests––Rask vs. Miller for three games and Thomas vs. Miller for one game––Buffalo was 2-0-2 in regulation, outscoring Boston 8-6. Boston picked up the extra point in the two games that went past 60 minutes, but you’ll recall that they don’t play 4 on 4 overtimes or go to the shootout in the playoffs.
Of note is that Tyler Myers seems to perk up against the Bruins, with 2 Goals and 3 Assists in his last four games against Boston – Not bad for these low scoring affairs.
Injuries and Intangibles
As recently as last weekend, Ruff wouldn’t commit to Connolly starting the series. Now, with Connolly, Vanek and underrated Patrick Kaleta back in the lineup, the Sabres are only lacking Jochen Hecht from being at full strength. Yes, it’s true that Drew Stafford (3.4 GVT) is sidelined with a concussion as well, but the truth is that his absence will lead Buffalo to dress a superior lineup with the way his play had degraded of late, and with good options available to Ruff, including youngsters Nathan Gerbe (0.8 GVT in 10 games) and Tyler Ennis.
Speaking of which: An ironic side effect of the “no-name” lineup that Buffalo employs is that the Sabres are in great shape to deal with most injuries, should they arise. What is coach Ruff’s quandary as far as which role player to utilize is the Sabres’ insurance policy for the postseason. Ruff can play his healthiest or hottest forwards.
For the Bruins, the loss of their best forward, Marc Savard, is injury upon insult – a bad offense made that much worse. The losses of their second best defenseman, newly acquired Dennis Seidenberg (7.4 GVT) and penalty killing blueliner Mark Stuart (1.6 GVT) only serve to put Boston further in the hole.
Advantage: Buffalo Sabres
Simply put, it’s a poor and injured offense (Boston) facing a great goaltender (Miller) on one end, and an average and improving offense (Buffalo) facing a great goaltender (Rask) on the other end. They’re similar profiles on the surface as far as strengths and weaknesses, but one gets the feeling that this year’s Sabres exude positive energy and overachievement, while this year’s Bruins exude negative energy and underachievement. Therefore, it’s hard to see this series going any more than six games.
The Sabres don’t get much respect, but then again, most people haven’t watched them that closely. Yes, Buffalo wins because of Ryan Miller, but they also win because they play really well as a team – A team that’s largely intact from last season. The Sabres stand a very good chance of making it at least as far as the Conference Finals, likely facing a much more depleted opponent in the second round.
Buffalo Sabres (total): +30.1 (5th in NHL)
Boston Bruins (total): +1.7 (15th in NHL)
Total GVT Difference: +28.4 Buffalo Sabres
Prediction: Buffalo Sabres in 5 games.
Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics. Follow Timo on Twitter at @timoseppa.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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