There's a temptation to pick the Sabres in this first-round Stanley Cup series. There's no hotter team in the NHL. They haven't lost two games in a row since Terry Pegula took ownership nearly two months ago. They have the better goaltender -- at least in reputation and playoff experience -- in Ryan Miller. And Chris Pronger, who wasn't on the ice at the game-day skate, won't play tonight.
Still, I can't do it. I'm still a skeptic. I need to be convinced that this group of Sabres can thrive in the playoffs, when the stakes are higher and the game is more physical. They've showed promising signs, but I can't get the memory of last year's Boston series out of my mind. They lost a lot of physical battles in that series. The Bruins were the tougher team. The core of that team remains the same. The key forwards on the Sabres still need to prove themselves as the primary players in a post-season series.
That doesn't mean the season is a failure if they lose to Philadelphia, which is the favorite. The Flyers are a very good team. They have more talent and better depth. Their defense is better, even without Pronger. If they get decent goaltending, they'll be tough to beat. It's amazing to think that a lot of experts are picking the Sabres. Who would have imagined in late December that anyone would pick this Buffalo team against a Philly team that was flying atop the NHL?
Pegula has created an exhilirating sense of promise among Sabres fans. That won't change based on a single playoff series. It would be great if they beat the Flyers and even made a run. Anything can happen in today's NHL. But the excitement in Buffalo is equally about what lies ahead. This season has created a momentum that could propel the Sabres toward much bigger things. They will be better and more suited for a Cup run when the young core gets more experienced.
If the Sabres fall flat on their faces against the Flyers, it will puncture some of the enthusiasm. I think fans need to see this team play well and compete against Philly the way they did in the last half of the season. If they do that and fall short, so be it. Better times are ahead. I do get the sense that many fans are taking that approach. They want to enjoy this playoff series as an extension of the regular season, but also as a bridge to a promising future when Pegula uses his deep pockets to enhance the roster.
So enjoy it. And keep in mind, I picked Butler to win the NCAA basketball championship. I picked the Tampa Bay Rays to make the baseball playoffs. This prediction might be reassuring to the Buffalo faithful:
Flyers in seven games.