Was Round 1 An Upset?

Entering the 2010 NHL Playoffs, the Buffalo Sabres had every reason for confidence heading into their quarter final match up with the Boston Bruins. After all, the Sabres had a very successful season winning the Northeast division easily by sixteen points, nineteen more than the Bruins.

The Bruins, who only secured a spot in the playoffs the last week of the season, were without two of their top four defenseman, and their best player, Marc Savard. The Bruins were also starting a rookie goaltender.  Hockey experts on nhl.com, and espn.com all predicted an easy series victory for the Sabres, some in as little as five games. After all, the Sabres were clearly the better team. Or were they?

A closer look at several points reveals that the Sabres may not have been the better team. The regular season series was won by the Bruins 4-2. Not only did the Bruins win four of six, but the two Sabre victories could have very well gone either way. On January 29, in Buffalo, the Sabres won by a score of  2-1.

A late Boston goal was disallowed on a high stick call, a call that was later called a “gift” even by the Buffalo announcing staff.  The second victory saw the Sabres score their third goal on Tim Thomas at 6:08 of the second period. Thomas was pulled in favor of Tuukka Rask, who in turn shut out the Sabres the rest of the way.

Ryan Miller was barraged with shots ending up saving 40 as the Sabres held on for a 3-2 victory.  While I’m not taking anything away from the Sabres, I don’t believe they did anything in these two victories to show superiority in any way.  With respect to the season series, nothing would lead anyone to believe the Sabres were the better team.

The Bruins battled injuries all season long. During the first half of the season the Bruins worked to overcome injuries to forward Milan Lucic, Marc Savard, and Vezina Trophy Winner, Tim Thomas. The offense, sputtered with the loss of leading goal scorer Phil Kessel, did not scare anyone.

On January 1st the Bruins had only 49 points, as compared with 64 a year ago.  On the other hand, the Sabres, led by All World Goaltender, Ryan Miller, sat atop the North East Division for most of the season.

However, going into game #50, the team’s records over the final 33 games of the season, revealed something different.  The Sabres were 15-15-3 (33 points), while the Bruins were 16-12-5 (37 points),  including a solid finish over the last thirteen games of 8-4-1.

The Bruins, getting somewhat healthy, were clearly playing better hockey, appearing to find their stride the last week, storming into the playoffs as one of the leagues hottest teams. Having to battle for every victory, the Bruins were basically playing “playoff hockey” over the final ten games, while the Sabres had an easier time having their playoff spot secured much earlier.

If there was one area the Sabres did have one huge advantage, it was the presence of Ryan Miller.  The Olympic MVP was at the top of his game and surely was a huge advantage over the Bruins rookie net minder Tuukka Rask.  However, the numbers didn’t quite justify the huge advantage.  While Miller’s numbers were quite impressive with a goals against average, (GAA),  of 2.22, and a save percentage, (SV%), of .929 with 5 shutouts.

On the other side, with the injury to Tim Thomas, the Bruins were forced to play rookie Tuukka Rask. Rask responded with comparable numbers to Miller and actually led the NHL with a GAA of 1.97, a SV% of .915 while registering 5 shutouts.

While I’m not suggesting that Rask is Miller’s equal, (at least not yet), I do want to suggest that the advantage the Sabres enjoyed with Ryan Miller in goal, might not actually be an advantage at all. In the playoff series Rask played well, having almost identical numbers to Miller, thus nullifying whatever advantage the Sabres may have had.

Based on the regular season the Sabres enjoyed home ice advantage.  In most cases this is a huge advantage.  However, the Bruins did win two out of three from the Sabres during the regular season at HSBC arena.

Over the 2009-2010 season the Bruins were an impressive 21-13-7 on the road, second only to Washington for the best road record.  The Bruins, obviously, were not at a disadvantage playing on the road, in Buffalo. That point was proven in Game #2 as the Bruins walked away with a 5-3 victory.

The coaching match up was seen to be pretty much even. The Bruins Head Coach, Claude Julien, was the reigning Jack Adams Trophy winner as the leagues top coach while Lindy Ruff has been behind the Sabres bench for 13 years.  Ruff has performed magic throughout the years always getting the most with mid level talented players.

Ruff is a good coach and is very smart. During the last game of the season, the Sabres were playing New Jersey.  Tied at one late in the third period, Ruff pulled his goalie.  The reason for this appeared obvious. A victory would give the Sabres the second seed in the Eastern Conference while a tie or loss would grant the third seed.

It also says here that Ruff knew all along that finishing third would mean playing the Boston Bruins.  Ruff was well aware of everything previously mentioned in this article and instead wanted to finish second and play someone other than the Bruins.  Unfortunately, the strategy backfired.  The Sabres lost and Ruff’s worst nightmare, outside of playing Ottawa, was realized.

So this “upset” carried out by the Bruins was not actually an upset. In the playoffs, the Bruins out hustled and outplayed the Sabres, shutting out the Sabres power play, which ended up going 0 for 19. Rask outplayed Miller. The Bruins scored on the power play, beat the Sabres at home, knocked them all over the rink, and twice overcame third period deficits to win.

Something that didn’t happen all season long. Outside of the seedings based on the regular season, there really was no other reason to make the Sabres the favorite.  In the end it was clear, the Bruins were the better team and their season continues while the Sabres have five months to retool for next year.

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