Buffalo Remains a Formidable East Contender with Ryan Miller Between the Pipes

Buffalo Remains a Formidable East Contender with Ryan Miller Between the Pipes The Sabres made it back to the playoffs for the first time in three years last spring after finishing atop the Northeast Division, but the Bruins made sure they didn’t stick around long as Boston eliminated them in the opening round. Buffalo had a relatively quiet offseason, and the core of last year’s squad will return to defend their division crown. As long as Ryan Miller is between the pipes, the Sabres won’t be an easy team to dethrone.

2009-10 Record: 45-27-10, 100 points (1st Northeast Division; 3rd Eastern Conference; lost in first round of playoffs to Boston, 4-2)

Bruins record vs. Sabres: Boston leads the all-time series 114-103-29-5, and went 4-2-0 against Buffalo last year in the regular season, then also went 4-2 in the first-round series in the playoffs. The Bruins opened with a 4-2 win at home on Nov. 7, then won 2-1 in overtime at Buffalo on Nov. 20 as Patrice Bergeron scored the winner. The Sabres scored a 2-1 win of their own in Buffalo on Jan. 29, but the Bruins won the last meeting in Buffalo 3-2 in a shootout on Feb. 9 as Daniel Paille scored twice against his old team. Buffalo won 3-2 in Boston on March 29, but the Bruins took the final meeting at the Garden 3-1 on April 8. The Sabres took Game 1 of the playoffs 2-1 at home, but the Bruins took the next three games, capped by a 3-2 victory in double OT on a Miroslav Satan goal in Game 4. Buffalo stayed alive with a 4-1 win in Game 5, but Boston closed out the series at home with a 4-3 victory in Game 6.

When to watch: The Bruins will play at Buffalo on Wednesday, Nov 3, Wednesday, Dec. 15 and follow the Winter Classic with a 5 p.m. clash on New Year’s Day. The Sabres come to Boston on Tuesday, Dec. 7, Thursday, Jan. 20 and Thursday, March 10.

Familiar faces: The Sabres signed former Bruins defenseman Shaone Morrisonn this summer. He joins a blue line that already features ex-Bruin Steve Montador. Buffalo also has some local flavor up front with veteran Mike Grier (Holliston, Mass./Boston University), Nathan Gerbe (Boston College) and prospect Dennis McCauley (Winchester, Mass./Northeastern).

Key additions: D Jordan Leopold (free agent); D Shaone Morrisonn (free agent); F Rob Niedermayer (free agent); F Tim Conboy (free agent); F Dennis McCauley (free agent)

Key losses: D Henrik Tallinder (signed with New Jersey); D Toni Lydman (signed with Anaheim); F Raffi Torres (signed with Vancouver); F Tim Kennedy (bought out); F Adam Mair (free agent); F Matt Ellis (free agent)

Burning question: Is Tyler Myers the next dominant big man on the blue line?

Defense is usually the toughest position to learn in the NHL, but the 20-year-old Myers had no trouble making the leap directly from junior as he won the Calder Trophy last year as the league’s top rookie. At 6-foot-8, 222 pounds, the towering Myers draws obvious comparisons to the Bruins’ Zdeno Chara (6-9, 255) and Philadelphia’s Chris Pronger (6-6, 220).

But while Myers may have similar size, his game is a bit different. He is not nearly as physical and doesn’t possess the mean streak that makes Chara and Pronger so difficult to play against. But Myers might be even more skilled that that pair. Myers put up 11-37-48 totals and was a plus-13 as a rookie. Chara managed just 2-6-8 totals and was a minus-8 in his first full season in 1998-99 after parts of two years in the AHL and didn’t top 40 points until his sixth season. Pronger did make the lap straight to the NHL, but was just 5-25-30 and a minus-3 in 1993-94 and also didn’t top 40 points until his sixth season. Myers may not develop the nasty edge Chara and Pronger have honed, but his offensive upside could be far greater.

2010-11 outlook: Not a lot has changed this year for the Sabres. Defensemen Tallinder and Lydman left via free agency and Morrisonn and Leopold (11-15-26 with Florida and Pittsburgh last year) were signed to fill those vacancies on the blue line.

Rob Niedermayer was added to strengthen the bottom six up front, where the top two lines already feature a dangerous collection of scorers in Derek Roy (26-43-69), Jason Pominville (24-38-62), Tim Connolly (17-48-65), Thomas Vanek (28-25-53), Jochen Hecht (21-21-42) and Drew Stafford (14-20-34). But Buffalo will still go only as far as Olympic hero Miller will take them. Miller was outstanding last year, winning the Vezina with a 41-18-8 record, 2.22 GAA and .929 save percentage. If he has similar success this year, the Sabres will be back among the top seeds in the East.

Did you know? Coaching in the NHL is not the line of work to go into if you’re looking for job security. But Buffalo bench boss Lindy Ruff has defied the odds and stayed with the Sabres for 12 seasons. He is the longest-tenured coach in the league, as all 29 other teams have brought in new head coaches since Ruff took over in 1997-98.

Next: We’ll head north of the border to check in on Boston’s most ancient rival, taking a look at the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday.

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