They share an awkward common bond, one that comes from each having survived the hardship of bankruptcy in the same season, yet there will be no feeling of kinship when the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators meet in the Eastern Conference finals.
More like a sense of pure hatred.
"The bad blood is there," conceded Sabres forward Thomas Vanek. "There's a history."
|Chris Drury suffered concussion-type symptoms on a hit to the head from Chris Neil on Feb. 22. (Getty Images)|
In other words, these are teams that don't really like each other and have a pretty good idea what lies ahead. Still, don't expect things on the ice to get out of hand no matter how much tempers might flare. With a trip to the Stanley Cup dance on the line, something that Ottawa has never been part of and Buffalo missed by one game last season, getting even isn't really a primary concern.
"I don't think it's a factor," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. "That might be in the background, but there's a lot of other stuff that's going to take the forefront over that. The big prize is one team is to go on to play for the Stanley Cup. Penalties for retaliation for something that happened a couple of months ago, if you're going to take those at this time of year, then I think your mindset is in the wrong place."
That's something no one has accused either team of so far this spring. The high-scoring Sabres, who finished first overall during the regular season, had a few rough patches in the first two rounds, but their explosiveness still made it relatively easy to get past the Islanders and Rangers. At the same time, the Senators showed the kind of grit and determination that has never their trademark in previous playoffs, and erased some of ghosts haunting them by running through the Penguins and Devils without breaking much of a sweat.
The upshot is an appropriate faceoff between the two best teams in the conference, both of them with enough talent, depth and two-way ability to produce what could be a classic playoff showdown.
"I think we all knew we were going to have to go through these guys to win," said Senators forward Jason Spezza. "They were the best team in the league all year."
The big question is whether they are the best right now. Buffalo has become the model team for the new NHL, with speed to burn, the ability to roll four lines without losing any offensive potential, a solid group of defenseman and excellent goaltending. And they have home-ice advantage in this series. But the Sabres' scoring in these playoffs has not come from as many sources as they'd like, and despite the excellent shutdown work by defensemen Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman, Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller has faced more challenging shots than he'd like.
Ottawa meanwhile, has a similar overall skill set, and while their attack is not quite as balanced, their top line of Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley has been the best unit in the playoffs. The Senators' shutdown defensemen, Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov, have been brilliant, first against Sidney Crosby's line in the Pittsburgh series and then against Scott Gomez's New Jersey line. Goalie Ray Emery is playing with the confidence of having bested Martin Brodeur.
Moreover, the Senators did well against Buffalo this season, winning five of the eight games played. And the Senators turned back tougher teams in the first two rounds by playing a style of hockey that arguably is more suited to winning this time of year than Buffalo's high-risk, high-reward game.
"We've been a team all year that has gone out and said 'you need to worry about us,'" said Ruff. "We've worked all year at playing a certain style and we're not going to change. You have to play to your strengths, and our strength is that we're a good offensive team.
Funny thing -- that used to be Ottawa's strength as well. It just never got them very far so now attention to defense is the name of their game.
"This is a very different team," said Ottawa coach Bryan Murray. "When I came here last year, I saw a team with a lot of flair and ability to score goals. It was an exciting team to watch, but totally dependent on skill. We talked about changing, but it was difficult and the learning curve took place after the playoffs last year when we realized things had to be different."
And so they are. Whether it's enough to get them past the league's regular-season champions remains to be seen.
"When you get to the final four in any sport, you know you're playing very motivated teams with real strengths in various areas," Murray said. "Whoever gets a break, great goaltending and plays to their potential will win. It's going to be a terrific series."