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Sabres Central

Down to the wire, are the Sabres ready for Prime Time?
By Rick Anderson
March 25, 2001

It's the home stretch. The Sabres are now in the midst of a late charge to the finish. Are they ready for prime time?

At the trading deadline, the Sabres acquired two gunners in the likes of Donald Audette and Steve Heinze. So far, only Heinze has produced. Audette, coming back to the place where he began his NHL career, had been shooting blanks until he finally scored a goal against his former Atlanta Thrashers team. It's not like he wasn't trying, but they were just not going in until he finally broke the ice against the Thrashers. Against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night, Audette finally got his first Sabres point when he made a perfect setup of Stu Barnes for the first goal the Sabres had scored on Arturs Irbe in almost two games. That was the one that broke the ice for Buffalo and led the way to a very crucial victory for the men in white and black. Erik Rasmussen would follow with a blistering shot from the top of the left faceoff circle for the winning goal and Miroslav Satan would get an empty netter to close the scoring in the Sabres 3-1 victory.

While the Sabres gunners had been silenced by Irbe in the last two games until the third period explosion, the team has seemed to have improved their offensive output with the addition of Heinze and Audette. Their very presence has been the frosting on the cake as far as Sabres coach Lindy Ruff is concerned. Now opposing teams can't concentrate on a couple of Sabres forwards like Satan and J.P. Dumont and shutdown the entire offense. Now the big question is whether the Sabres have made the leap from a peripheral playoff team to one that could challenge for the finals again like two years ago.

The Sabres definitely have the defensive makings of a Cup contender. Buffalo not only leads the Eastern Conference in goals against, but it tops in the entire league with 169. It's no coincidence that goaltender Dominik Hasek is a major part in that. Hasek had been struggling for the majority of the season, being inconsistent at best. But since January, the good games are not being followed by average games as often. The Dominator has one more piece of silverware that he wants before he retires. Having won the Olympic gold and 5 Vezina trophies, Hasek has deferred his impending retirement for one reason and one reason only - the Stanley Cup. He is bound and determined to do everything in his power to achieve that elusive goal.

The Sabres defense is led by Alexei Zhitnik, who had a horrendous year last season. He has rebounded nicely during the present campaign. He not only has corrected on his many mistakes of last year, but his offensive production has been much better since he decided that rocketing shots of 100 MPH at opposing goalies is not as important as getting off a more accurate shot. Last season, the standing joke around the NHL was to duck whenever Zhitnik took a shot, especially if you sat a few rows behind the goal in the stands. More shots by Zhitnik would end up 10 rows up behind the net than on goal. Not only has Zhitnik's play gotten more consistent, but he is willing to tend goal whenever the need arises. Against the Maple Leafs during the Sabres impressive 3-0 victory, Zhitnik saved a sure Toronto goal when Hasek was caught out of the crease. Zhitnik fell down to block the shot that was clearly headed for the back of the net.

One of the finest blue line pairings in the NHL has to be Jay McKee and Rhett Warrener. Every since the Sabres acquired Warrener from Florida two years ago, this tandem has been almost inseparable. They feed upon each other and opponents know that they have to take a ferocious beating to get past them. Add into the mix rookie Dimitri Kalinin, Jason Woolley, Richard Smehlik and veteran James Patrick, and the Sabres have one of the most solid defensive units in the league.

With such a impressive defense backed by Hasek, the Sabres would be one of the favorites to make the finals if they had more goal production. For the past 3 years, the Sabres were always one of the best defensive teams in the league. However, too many games would be so low scoring that one mistake would spell doom for the Sabres. This is where the addition of Audette and Heinze could be the wild card for Buffalo. If Audette ever gets untracked as he was while playing for Atlanta, the Sabres could be a team to be reckoned with in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Barnes could tell Audette a few stories of his own about being traded to Buffalo and shooting blanks until the playoffs. When Barnes arrived in Buffalo in exchange for Matthew Barnaby two years ago, he did not score until well into the playoffs. But once he started lighting the goal lamp, there was no stopping him. Against the Hurricanes, he scored his 19th goal of the season and has been mentioned as the leading candidate to replace disgruntled Michael Peca as the team's next captain.

Another piece in the Sabres scoring puzzle may be Dumont. Dumont was the throw in player in last year's Michal Grosek for Doug Gilmour trade. Dumont started this season like a rocket, hitting the back of the net with phenomenal frequency. He had 15 goals by mid-December and suddenly cooled off as fast as he started. After being held scoreless for around a month, Dumont started to score again and now has 23 goals to go along with his 27 assists. To add to the Sabres firepower, the Sabres also got former Sabre great Dave Andreychuk to help with the powerplay. Andreychuk has provided dividends for Buffalo, as he has 17 goals. Satan, who was stuck without a goal for 11 games, finally got his 24th against Carolina and Ruff is hoping that will ignite his scoring torch again.

The Sabres hopes to survive the first round have to go squarely on the shoulders of the offense. The defense is prime time ready. Now the Sabres have to start producing goals in numbers that have been rare for this goal-starved team. Heinze has 27 goals, Audette has 32. Add into the mix Satan's 24, Dumont's 23 and Andreychuk's 17, and the Sabres suddenly seem like an offensive juggernaut.

It appears more of a probability that the Sabres will be facing their old nemesis, the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round again this season. In order for the Sabres to not be eliminated as quickly as they were last April at the hands of the Flyers, they will not only have to survive the physical game that the bigger Philadelphia team will throw at them, but also be able to solve first-year sensation Roman Cechmanek, who has pitched two straight perfect games when he faced his fellow countryman Hasek. It is a big challenge for Ruff's crew, but he is hoping that he finally has the stallions to ride all the way to the finals again.

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