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Sabres Central

Sabres fighting for their lives
By Rick Anderson
October 12, 2002

Eric Boulton, leads the Sarbres fighting cause in 5-1 win over the Islanders. Here he takes on Islanders' Arron Asham in a fight where he breaks his nose.
[AP Photo/David Duprey]

Lindy Ruff had his work cut out for him. The turbulent off season for the Sabres had its effect on the Sabres coach and the direction he had to set for the team's upcoming season. To say it was going to be the most important season in the franchise's history is an understatement. With the arrest of team owner John Rigas right after the season ended along with the league taking over operations of the team until a new owner could be found, made Ruff's job even more important. There was definitely a sense of urgency in Ruff's Mission Impossible. He had to turn this team around and do it in a hurry.

Ruff also had more personal reasons to get the Sabres back on track and into the postseason. This was to be his last year in his current contract. Most teams don't like to have their coach enter a season on the last leg of a contract. It creates a scenario where the coach is considered by the players as a coach on his way out. It gives them incentive to perform below their abilities just to get him out the door.

Sabres GM Darcy Regier doesn't see it that way. Regier has had an even harder time than Ruff since Rigas's scandal was made public. He had to convince the Sabres fans who suddenly weren't buying into the Sabres scheme and were not renewing season tickets that it was "business as usual." In fact, Regier had to show the Sabres were committed to be a better business than before. It has been a hard sell.

Ruff's new contract had to wait while Regier was busy signing all the free agents and being the lead in the Sabres new campaign "It's our team. Let's keep it that way." Regier has been working close with his new boss, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, in trying to make the team as attractive to potential team owners as possible. The main goal was to get the season ticket count up from 6,500 to near the league average of 11,000. That was no easy feat.

That's where Ruff came in. He had to work miracles on the ice. The team that failed to make the playoffs for the first time in years had to be suddenly turned into an appealing, competitive team that needed to make the post season more than ever. Talk about being put on the spot. Ruff was not only trying to save his job, but the hockey franchise for the city of Buffalo.

In an effort to get the fans more involved in the Sabres on a personal level, the Sabres management scheduled open practices at HSBC Arena every Tuesday night for the past few weeks. Also, Regier and the Sabres front office conducted surveys with Sabres fans to get their input on what it would take to get them back in the seats and to make the team more entertaining. One of the biggest complaints was that the team was playing a boring style of hockey the past few seasons. With Sherry Bassin being one of the potential owners and his close relationship with Ted Nolan, the fans were reminded about the exciting brand of hockey that Nolan gave the fans when he was coaching the team.

The Sabres were labeled "the hardest working team in hockey" under Nolan's realm. With the possibility of Nolan being Bassin's choice to be the Sabres next coach, Ruff could see the handwriting on the wall. He had to incorporate that aggressive style of hockey that enthralled the fans.

Ruff's teams have always been geared more towards the defensive style, the boring but effective way of shutting down potent offensives. With the new NHL rules on clutching and grabbing, it gave Ruff the opportunity to open things up a bit and to take advantage of some of the speed on his team. Everything was pointing to a complete overhaul of Ruff's philosophy. Lindy knew he had no choice. To save his job, to save the franchise and to put the fans back in the seats, he just had to make this team more gun-ho.

From the start of training camp, Ruff had his new plan of attack and had to get his players to commit to the new style of aggressive play.

"Ever since we started training camp, I just kept hammering home emotion and intensity,'' insisted Ruff.

Opening night on Thursday was the ultimate test of his new system. It was "Curtains up" in Buffalo. The season of extreme importance was ushered in with much fanfare and plenty of empty seats. The Sabres were hosting the New York Islanders and it was important for the team to jumpstart their season with a big win.

The intensity and jump the Sabres had against the Isles may have even surprised Ruff himself. Buffalo, after allowing the Isles to score a quick powerplay goal, roared back to thump the Isles 5-1. The system was working.

"We developed a lot of chemistry throughout camp by playing that way," said Ruff." That was evident out there tonight.''

The Sabres who had problems the last two years scoring powerplay goals, got two against the Isles. Not only that, they came out fighting. Rob Ray and Eric Boulton mixed it up a couple of times to the delight of the fans. Even Tim Connolly, usually know for his meek side, got into a pushing match and was willing to sacrifice his unscarred face to do battle for the cause.

"We developed a lot of chemistry throughout camp by playing that way. That was evident out there tonight.''

The Sabres were adamant that they were not going to be pushed around. Last season they repeatedly saw opponents take cheap shots at their top players. Not this night. Five fights broke out when the Sabres said enough was enough and came to the defense of their fallen comrades. There were a total of 150 minutes in penalties handed out in the battle-filled contest. Boulton received a broken nose in his first fight, came back with a plug in his nose and got blood splattered all over his face and jersey in the last fight with Jason Wiemer in the third period. Boulton got tossed out with a game misconduct, but he had done his job. It was his mission to prevent any team from taking liberties with teammates.

The Sabres were also playing more physical offensively, creating more scoring opportunities. In the preseason, the Sabres opened things up and won 4 out of 7 games with a tie. The question was whether the Sabres could continue that when it counted the most during the regular season.

Last season, the Sabres had a hard time scoring 2 goals a game. In preseason, five was more the norm. When they got goals from five different players against the Isles, it showed a well-balance scoring machine. Three minutes after the Isles scored at almost exactly the 1 minute mark, Stu Barnes got the game notched up with a powerplay goal. That was followed by goals from Chris Gratton (who was playing on a broken foot) and newcomer Jochen Hecht in the first stanza. The Sabres broke the game wide open with two more goals in the second, coming on Connolly's powerplay goal and J.P. Dumont's nifty tally to put the Sabres up for good 5-1.

The new aggressive attitude the Sabres are taking goes right down the line. Connolly was often cited as the weakest link on the Sabres where it concerned toughness. Connolly raised quite a few eyebrows when he was willing to go toe-to-toe with Jason Blake in the final period.

"It's time for me to step up and contribute a whole lot more than I have been," admitted Connolly. "I've been putting a lot of time into my offense, and that's what I want to do: get out there and create and play as hard as I can for this team."

"No. 1, it showed emotion," lauded Ruff about his new tough guy. "It showed passion. You can chuckle about it, you can do whatever you want, but he's been the first guy in through a couple situations in training camp and now again in the regular season."

The opening night victory against the Isles was just a start. The Sabres are promising more of the same and want the fans to be infected with the team's new optimism.

"I couldn't have (wrote a better beginning)," Ruff described. "Maybe us getting on the board first, but I thought we came right back and scored a beautiful goal on the power play. We just kept hammering it home with emotion and intensity."

The players are buying into Ruff's new system.

"At the end of the game, the people appreciated it and they showed it," said all-time Sabres enforcer Rob Ray. "The people that were here went away happy. It was not only from the win, but they were entertained. A big part is winning, but a big part is putting people in the building, too."

The scoring is up, the passion is back and now the main goal is to keep up this momentum throughout the season to win the fans back. As tough a task as this may be for Ruff, who is fighting for his career, he is up to it and so is the team.

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