After fleeing the Big Apple with two victories— thanks, some say, to a pair of fortuitous calls— the Buffalo Sabres can close the book on the New York Islanders' season with a win at home on Friday night (7 p.m. ET).
Islanders head coach— and former Sabres bench boss— Ted Nolan has been especially vocal in claiming that Buffalo's commanding 3-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference quarter-final is at least partly the product of two disputed goals.
While that notion is debatable, another is less so: the Sabres, who captured the Presidents' Trophywith the NHL's best regular-season record, had to do everything butenlist the help of Snake Plissken to escape from New York with two perilous winsover a supposedly overmatched Islanders team that scraped into the playoffs as a No. 8 seed.
The first adventure came in Monday's Game 3 on Long Island.
With Buffalo leading 1-0 in the second period, Thomas Vanek executed a wraparound, stuffing the puck between Isles goalie Rick DiPietro and the left post. The on-ice call was no goal, but a lengthy video review revealed the puck had barely crossed the goal-line before leaking back out, and the Sabres went on to win 3-2.
Then, in Wednesday's Game 4 at Nassau Coliseum, New York appeared to tie the game off a goalmouth scramble with under two minutes remaining. This time there was no disputing that the puck went in, but a replay was neededto confirm the referee's ruling that Sabres goalie Ryan Miller had been pushed into his net while smothering the puck.
Buoyed by the call, Buffalocame out on top4-2 on a Jason Pominville insurance marker moments later.
"I don't care what anybody says. That was a goal," said Nolan, who coached Buffalo from 1995-97 before taking the Islanders post in 2006. "The league says it wasn't a goal, so what can you do?"
Isles hanging tough
Miller, though, wasn't buying the suggestion that the Sabres have been the beneficiaries of any outrageous fortune.
"I know the Islanders are livid and trying to get their guys fired up about something," Miller said after a brief practice. "But I just think the series should be defined by more than that.
Their daunting series deficit notwithstanding, the Islanders ought to be commended for at least hanging with the high-flying Sabres.
Buffalo, which led the NHL with 308 goals in the regular season, has outscored New York 13-8 in the series, including a 4-1 home win in Game 1. But neither team has had more than a one-goal lead entering the third period in each of the series' four games.
"We haven't been able to put them away. And every game has been a challenge," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "We want to end this series, but we know how incredibly hard it can be."
Gaustad nearing return
The Sabres have the edge in part because of an almost criminally deep lineup. Each of their four lines has accounted for at least a goal, led by co-captain Chris Drury, who has scored four, including two game winners.
The Sabres have also received four goals from their defencemen, including a pair by Brian Campbell in Game 1.
As if Buffalo needed more depth, the team indicated Thursday that rugged forward Paul Gaustad— out since early February with a severed ankle tendon— could returnas early asthe second round of the playoffs, if the Sabres manage to dispatch the Islanders.
The six-foot-five, 225-pound Gaustad, who was originally supposed to be out until at least the Stanley Cup final, has been practising with the team for three days, according to the Buffalo News.
"He is getting close to skating at full speed," Ruff said before Game 4. "Things are progressing rapidly with Paul, which is tremendous for our team."
If the Sabres fail to close out the Islanders on Friday night, the series will return to Long Island for Game 6 on Sunday (7 p.m. ET).
If Buffalo wins Friday, the team willadvance to face either the New York Rangers, who completed a sweep of the Atlanta Thrashers on Wednesday, or the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose series with the New Jersey Devils is tied 2-2 heading into Friday's Game 5.