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Sabres Central

Sabres ring out the year with a thud
By Rick Anderson
January 1, 2002

Sabres goalie Mika Noronen gets beat by Hurricanes winger Martin Gelinas with a shot over his glove in the first period.
[AP Photo/Don Heupel]

The Buffalo Sabres rang out the year the same way as they rang it in last January 1st. The Sabres, who are in danger of falling completely out of the playoff race, lost their "Tux N Pucks" New Year's Eve contest with the Carolina Hurricanes 5-4. Buffalo opened 2001 with a 4-3 loss to the Boston Bruins. Maybe the Sabres can turn the page on the past year and begin a new chapter that will be more successful.

The Sabres have not recovered from the loss of Vezina Trophy winner Dominik Hasek. Martin Biron was supposed to be the heir of the Dominator's thrown, but he has been shaky in goal since taking over. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff brought up rookie goalie Mika Noronen to put some pressure on Biron. Noronen has won more games that Biron did in December, but even he had to be pulled Monday night as he let in two goals on 11 shots in the first period. The game was just 46 seconds old when Bates Battaglia got one past the young goalie. After Maxim Afinogenov scored an unbelievable goal when falling down at the 15:34 mark, Martin Gelinas lifted the puck over Noronen from the right faceoff circle after the goalie went down too soon. That soft goal didn't please Ruff.

"I didn't like the second goal, and I didn't like some things I saw after that," explained Ruff. "He just didn't look comfortable. There were a couple saves that just didn't look good and that was enough for me."

With Biron in the nets starting in the second stanza, the Canes scored again when Carolina captain Ron Francis slid the puck over to Sean Hill, who beat the Sabres goalie.

It appeared as if the Hurricanes would up their lead to at least 4-1 when the Sabres had both Vaclav Varada and Rhett Warrener in the box. Buffalo not only killed those penalties, but after Warrener came out of the penalty box, he stole the puck and had an electrifying breakaway. As Warrener came in on Carolina goalie Arturs Irbe, he was tripped up and a penalty was being called. However, as Warrener fell, he was able to reach with his stick and backhand the puck into the net.

The Sabres actually tied the game some 87 seconds later when Denis Hamel lifted a shot over Irbe from the left circle. Could it be the Sabres were going to stage a miraculous comeback? Not if Francis had anything to do with it. He was able to retrieve the puck after a Sami Kapanen shot got past Biron in the crease. Francis had no problems putting it into the empty net.

Francis got another empty-netter when the Sabres pulled Biron in favor of the extra attacker for his 499th NHL tally. Only 4 other greats have scored 500 goals.

The Sabres came back and scored with 24 seconds left on the clock when Curtis Brown picked up his own rebound and got it past Irbe. But Buffalo could not get the puck out of their own zone in the last seconds and they ended 2001 the way they started it, with a 1-goal loss.

Will the No. 1 goalie please stand up

The Sabres brass was hoping that either Biron or Noronen would step up and claim the No. 1 goalie position left vacant when the Sabres traded Hasek to Detroit. That has not happened as of yet and has left Ruff scratching his head.

"We're looking for one guy to take the bull by the horns," declared Ruff. "It's a gut instinct right now. I'm trying to find a guy that will win us a hockey game."

As for Biron, Ruff said, "Marty's battling. In the same sense, we need him to be better."

Biron allowed two goals on 18 shots and got tagged with yet another loss.

Noronen express his views about being pulled after the first period.

"I was a little bit surprised, but he has to do what he thinks he has to do to win games," explained Noronen. "If you play 20 minutes and you allow two goals, that's not enough. It's not a good start, and I should do more."

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