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Sabres Central

Kotalik to the rescue!
By Rick Anderson
January 11, 2003

Ryan Miller does the splits in during a scrum in front of the crease with Henrik Tallinder and the Bruins Marty McInnis battling for the puck. Miller, who has played in 7 straight games, has helped the Sabres win 3 out of their last 4.
[AP Photo/David Duprey]

Doug Flutie is often credited for saving the Buffalo Bills franchise. Everyone has been hoping for a "Flutie of hockey" to come around and spark as much interest in the Buffalo Sabres. Out of the dark gloom that has surrounded the Sabres since last summer with the arrest of owner John Rigas, there has emerged a fiery entity known as Ales Kotalik. Could he be the Doug Flutie that could save the Sabres for Buffalo? Only time will tell. But Kotalik is the hottest NHL goal scorer this past week as he notched his third straight 2-goal game in helping the Sabres comeback and beat the Boston Bruins 4-2 Friday night in HSBC Arena.

The Sabres overcame a two-goal deficit in scoring 4 unanswered goals in the final period to win their third game in their last four. But the real story was Kotalik. Ales has taken the league lead for rookies in goals with 12. He passed the Blackhawks Tyler Arnason by one goal and is the hottest thing on NHL ice recently.

"I didn't even think I would ever score goals in the NHL, but it's coming," said Kotalik after his two goals against the Bruins. "I can be comfortable and make things happen."

While it would have been better to have someone come out of the pack and light up the scoreboard for the Sabres to help pack the house, no one is complaining about Kotalik's hot streak.

"He's been incredible," said Taylor Pyatt. "He's on fire. It seems every time he's in the slot he has such a tremendous release, the puck is off his stick and into the back of the net."

Bruins take 2-0 lead

The Bruins were outplayed by the Sabres in the first period but came out with a 1-0 lead when Sabres goalie Ryan Miller got out of position blocking a shot and the puck came out to Brian Rolston, who quickly fired towards the gapping net. Miller was able to get over, but it went off Miller's side and under his arm into the net with only 1:11 remaining in the opening period.

The two teams went scoreless in the second stanza, but the Bruins got another tally when Jozef Stumpel positioned himself in the slot and raised a shot just under the crossbar to give the Bruins what seemed to be a commanding 2-0 lead with only 31 seconds gone by in the third. That's when the Sabres came storming back.

The Sabres got spark from a very unlikely source. Tim Connolly who has been hounded by fans, media and maybe demons within, made a nifty move in front of former Sabres goalie Steve Shields to put the Sabres right back into the game. Getting a nice pass from Adam Mair, Connolly skated right in front of Shields, paused and then sent a backhander up over a dazzled Shields.

Then Kotalik took center stage and got some great setups to accomplish his 3rd straight double goal game. J.P. Dumont went down the right side with Kotalik flying up the middle. Dumont's pass found Kotalik right in front of Shields and the rookie tipped it in the open side. The goal came at 8:07 of the period and then minutes later, it was Dumont again feeding Kotalik in front as he one-timed it past Shields. Stu Barnes did a lot of leg work in the corner, setting up the goal. Miroslav Satan was able to close the scoring right before the final horn as he raced down the ice and beat out an icing. Satan swept the puck into the net as the horn sounded.

Miller can be the spark to get the Sabres fans back. Now he only has to keep on scoring and he will be held in the same regard with the Sabres as Doug Flutie is for saving the Bills.

Miller Ice

Part of the resurgence the Sabres have been experiencing has to do with the great goaltending of Miller. Against the Bruins, he was solid in the first period, only getting caught out of position on the first goal. He made 21 saves and the Sabres are feeding off his strong play, much the way they used to Dominik Hasek when he kept the scoring down. With confidence in a goalie, the defense can pinch in and put enormous pressure on the opposition. With the inconsistent goaltending of Martin Biron and Mika Noronen, the Sabres were hesitant to employ that strategy.

Against the Ottawa Senators last Saturday, Miller played out of his skull, standing on his head with 31 stops. The Sens were the leagues top team at the time and Miller put in a performance reminiscent of the Dominator in his prime. The Sabres beat the Sens 2-1 in overtime as Kotalik scored both Sabres goals. Kotalik opened the scoring with only 48 seconds gone by and finished the game with the game winner with only 40.9 seconds left in overtime.

Miller has been showing maturity of an experience goalie and it has Biron riding the pine.

"Every game's a learning experience for me,'' said Miller after the Senators victory. "I'm just trying to build some confidence and build my game here at the NHL level and prove I can do it here on a consistent basis, and this kind of a game helps.''

Miller was good but not good enough against the Flyers Tuesday night. He made 21 saves in that one as the Sabres took a 2-0 lead, only to allow the Flyers to come back and beat Buffalo 3-2. Kotalik, scored both Buffalo goals and the Sabres could not score on Flyers goalie Robert Esche after Kotalik scored 11:04 into the second stanza.

"We started playing in a shell and didn't have the killer instinct to go out and get that third goal," said Sabres veteran Rob Ray. "It's a young team and that's something you have to teach them."

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff has promised to start Biron against the Montreal Canadiens Saturday. After riding the bench for 7 straight games, Biron has a lot to prove to get back into the rotation.

Sabres Talk

Mark Hamister asked for and was granted a one week extension by the NHL to submit his final paper work to buy the Sabres. There are still a lot of snags to work out, including the money he wants to acquire from New York State.

"We haven't reached a dead end," said Mark Hamister. "In fact, we're pleased with the progress we've made, and we'll now be able to continue that dialogue into next week. I'm pleased with how far we've come."

Even if Hamister does get a lot of what he wants in government concessions, it has been said that the Sabres will file for bankruptcy before the month ends. Earlier this week, the Senators, who are having even worse financial problems than the Sabres, filed for bankruptcy in both the United States and Canada. The Sabres will probably follow suit very soon.

With all the distractions off the ice, the Sabres seem to have finally gotten their heads back into the game. The Senators, who have yet to get paid since the end of December, continue to dominate the league in points. Maybe seeing how the Sens were able to play well even though they were not getting paid, had a big impact on the Sabres this week. With Kotalik and Miller leading the way, the Sabres may just get the fans back into arena. There were 14,169 at the Bruins game and if Kotalik and Miller can get the fans pumped up again, sellouts may be a common occurrence again in the near future.

"We looked relaxed out there," described Dumont. "We know we are able to win now. It feels good to know that."

Ruff talked about the two kids. He didn't get down on the two goals that Miller allowed and Kotalik was able to get the win for the Sabres.

"Both goals were tough ones, but it wasn't that he wasn't ready and beaten cleanly by those shots," defended Ruff on Miller's play. "I liked what I saw there."

Kotalik has come to the rescue to the Sabres struggling offense.

"Al's just refreshing," described Ruff. "He goes out there and works extremely hard. He scores a couple goals and immediately afterwards goes and runs somebody through the end of the rink."

Kotalik is just enjoying the moment because one never knows when the goal scoring will come to a screeching halt.

"I'm just lucky at this time," admitted Kotalik. "I'm happy I can bring points to the team. I'm just happy to be here and play in the NHL. This is what I was dreaming about and I'm happy to get a chance. I hope that the people recognize that I can play a serious role in this league.''

The Kotalik, Dumont and Barnes line has been hot the past two weeks.

"We've got a line now that believes it can score anytime," insisted Ruff. "It's probably the biggest difference. We've been feeding off a line we just believe can go out there and score goals."

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