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The Buffalo Sabres were expecting to advance to the playoffs for the third straight season in 2007-08, but they were unable to catch the surprising Boston Bruins, who stole the Eastern Conference's final spot.
Early this season, the Sabres don't look like they're planning on chasing anybody.
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Tim Connolly: Audio | Video
Derek Roy: Video
Jaroslav Spacek: Video
Thomas Vanek: Video
Lindy Ruff: Video
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Buffalo will look to remain one of four NHL clubs without a regulation defeat on Tuesday night, when it opens its season series with Northeast Division rival Boston at HSBC Arena.
After they stumbled out of the gate last season, going 6-10-1 in their first 17 games, the Sabres were intent on avoiding such problems this fall. Thanks to strong goaltending, the prolific scoring of Thomas Vanek and a perfect penalty kill, Buffalo's start has been perhaps even better than coach Lindy Ruff expected.
The Sabres (4-0-1) were finally dealt their first loss Saturday, falling 3-2 in a shootout at Atlanta, but they erased a 2-0 deficit and tied the game with 3:08 left to salvage a point.
Backup goalie Patrick Lalime stopped 35 shots, Vanek scored his seventh goal and Buffalo squelched all six of the Thrashers' power-play attempts. Sabres opponents are now 0-for-24 on the man advantage this season.
"I think our mentality changed in training camp," said Vanek, who has two short-handed goals and three on the power play. "I think the coaches have done a good job of harping on us winning tight games, playing good defensively, not giving up a lot of scoring chances."
Vanek has 28 points in 24 career games against Boston, and the Sabres are 14-0-2 against the Bruins when the Austrian winger has at least one point. Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller, who is 3-0-0 with a 1.30 goals-against average this season, has also played well against Boston, going 11-3-4 with a 2.50 GAA in his career.
Both teams went 4-2-2 in the series last season, with three of the games decided in overtime and one in a shootout. Five of the eight matchups were decided by one goal, and the Bruins finished the season four points ahead of Buffalo in the standings.
Four of Boston's five games this season have been one-goal affairs, including a pair of shootout losses. After going 2-1-1 on their season-opening road trip, the Bruins (2-1-2) lost 2-1 in a shootout to Pittsburgh in their home opener on Monday night.
They outshot the defending East champions 36-32, but Penguins backup goalie Dany Sabourin stopped all 16 shots he faced in the first period, as well as Boston's final four shootout attempts.
Bruins winger Phil Kessel scored his fifth goal in five games after tallying 19 all of last season, but Boston's offense - 24th in the league with 206 goals last season - was otherwise silenced. The Bruins had scored at least three goals in each of their first four games.
"It's an easy topic to talk about, guys, because we lost," Bruins coach Claude Julien said of the team's lack of scoring. "We can go on about this if you want, but I think it was a hard-fought game with solid goaltending at both ends. As far as I'm concerned we were the better team."
While Bruins goalie Tim Thomas looked strong in stopping 31 shots on Monday, Julien has alternated goaltenders through his team's first five games. If he continues that trend, Manny Fernandez would start on Tuesday.
Fernandez, who made 23 stops in a 4-2 win over Ottawa in his last appearance, is 3-0-0 with a 2.00 GAA in his career against the Sabres, but he hasn't faced them since Dec. 13, 2003.
Thomas Vanek continues to light the lamp at a record pace, having scored goals in each of Buffalo's five games. Vanek's seven goals are the most ever by a Sabres player in the team's first five games of the season. He has also tied Gilbert Perreault's 1979-80 team record for consecutive games with goals to start the season. Dating back to last season - when Vanek scored scored eight goals in Buffalo's final 10 games - Vanek has now scored 15 goals in his last 15 games.
The Sabres head into Tuesday's game a league-best 24-for-24 on the penalty kill. This is the most games from the start of a season by the Sabres without allowing a PPG in franchise history. Entering play on Monday they were one of just three teams who haven't given up a PP goal this season. The other two are Minnesota (15/15) and Los Angeles (19/19).
SABRES & BILLS
This is the first time since 1975 that the Sabres and Bills both started the season 4-0.