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Don't underestimate the Sabres

Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller makes a save on a shot by the New Jersey Devils during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Buffalo, N.Y., Saturday, March 26, 2011. The Sabres won 4-2. (AP Photo/David Duprey)

David Duprey

The Buffalo Sabres may be considered just one of two or three teams fighting to grab the last playoff spot in the NHL's Eastern Conference but any elite team that dismisses them does so at its peril.

For the Sabres are the one team that no one should want to face in the first round, where many lofty expectations come crashing down.

Heading into Tuesday night's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Sabres were 23-10-5 since January and they were 9-3-2 so far in March. The latter mark is why the Leafs, despite all their trying, could not catch them for the eighth and last playoff spot.

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The main reason the Sabres frighten other Eastern teams, though, is goaltender Ryan Miller. He is playing his best hockey of the season right now. He was picked as the NHL's first star of the week ending Mar. 27 after posting a 3-0 record with two shutouts, a 0.67 goals-against average and .976 save percentage.

The Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals, the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, are both weaker in goal than the Sabres, which fuels thoughts of a first-round upset. Perhaps both teams are pulling for the Sabres to knock off the Leafs to spark a rise from eighth place past the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens and into sixth place in their last six games.

"I'm just trying to be sharp like everybody in this room," Miller said Tuesday in the dressing room after the Sabres' game-day skate.

Miller said the key to the Sabres' post-Christmas success is playing better in their own end and playing aggressively to keep other teams off-balance.

"That's when I'm at my best, when we get in the flow of the game and make things happen" he said. "We're frustrating teams in the way they want to get set up [in the Sabres' zone] We haven't let them settle the puck down."

The Leafs, though, are one team that can unsettle the Sabres lately. While the Sabres have a 29-11-1 record against the Leafs since the 2004-05 lockout, the Leafs won the last two games between them and desperately need to make it three in a row to keep their faint playoff hopes alive.

Smothering those hopes is the aim of every Sabres player.

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"We hate losing to those guys," Sabres forward Jason Pominville said. "We just don't like them. Every time we play we seem to bring out the best in both teams.

"There is no better feeling than to push them back and not give them hope."

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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