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Sabres Central

Sabres late season surge gives hope for future
By Rick Anderson
April 5, 2003

J. P. Dumont pressures Thrashers' Jeff Odgers along the boards in first period action Wednesday night as the Sabres staged a huge comeback victory.
[AP Photo/David Duprey]

While the war wages on in Iraq, the Buffalo Sabres have waged their own war this season. It has been a war of survival and dignity. Wednesday night, the Sabres battled back from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Atlanta Thrashers 4-3 in HSBC Arena. While the playoff hopes have long been gone, the team still fights and shows a spark which may be a good sign of things to come next season.

In a season of continuous bad news and fears about the team moving or folding, the team finally got its act together after it became clear that Tom Golisano was going to be the new owner and keep the team in Buffalo. The Atlanta game was like a mini-portrait of the Sabres season as a whole.

Trailing 3-0 with 14 minutes left in regulation, the Sabres staged one of their greatest comebacks in franchise history. Daniel Briere and Tim Connolly scored powerplay goals with less than 2 minutes left and it capped a night where Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was honored as the winningest coach in franchise history.

"To win on a night like this is exciting," said Connolly, who was suspended the next day for a high sticking incident in the game. "It was a tough first two periods, but we didn't give up. We're pretty pumped. It's a pretty big thing for Lindy."

"It shows us for future reference that when we do get down, we can come back and win," Connolly added.

For Ruff, who was presented awards in a pregame ceremony for breaking Scotty Bowman's previous franchise win record, it was a game he will never forget.

"It's been unbelievable. It was a great day", admitted Ruff.

During the ceremony, Ruff was presented a huge 65-inch television along with a painting of his likeness. Even Ruff's early mentor, Scotty Bowman, congratulated his former player and captain at center ice.

"Everyone realizes the situation the team's in and where he's at," said Rhett Warrener. "Nobody knows what the future holds. So you want to do good for him. He's done a lot for this team and this city and this organization. It meant a lot to win tonight."

To start off the comeback, Dmitri Kalinin got the Sabres on the board and then sensational rookie Ales Kotalik notched his 20th tally of the season.

Briere, who has been on fire since coming over to the Sabres from Phoenix in a trade for Chris Gratton, tied the game up with 1:50 left. He pounced on a rebound after Miroslav Satan took a shot to tie it up. Then Satan fed a pass to Connolly who beat Thrashers goalie Pasi Nurminen from up close to win it.

"I knew it was coming," insisted Briere. "We just had to keep shooting. After those two goals (the goalie) was shaky. He was fighting the puck a lot more. Confidence was on our side, and the way we were handling ourselves on the ice we had the feeling we were going to come back."

SARS scare

As if the Sabres and their fans didn't have enough to worry about already this season, last Saturday it was revealed that two Sabres had been exposed to the SARS virus. After a game the week before, one of Brian Campbell's relatives had visited both he and his roommate Rhett Warrener. She was visiting from Toronto and had taken in the game at HSBC Arena. The next day she came down with the SARS virus.

While waiting on the plane to fly to Carolina, Campbell told Ruff and the team physician that he may have been exposed to the SARS virus. After a long deliberation it was decided that both Campbell and Warrener should stay behind and remain in isolation for 10 days so not to expose the team or others. The players on the plane almost panicked as they discussed the possibility of a team epidemic, but later their fears were quelled when the team physician talked to them and both Campbell and Warrener showed no symptoms the following week. Both were allowed to rejoin the team and Warrener played Wednesday night against the Thrashers.

In a year that started with the arrests of Sabres owner John Rigas and his two sons, a horrible start of the season and the ownership muddle that wasn't resolved until recently, the Sabres have had their share of troubles. But now that there are only 2 games remaining, the team seems to be heading in the right direction and sees the light at the end of the tunnel.

Warrener, who was happy that he didn't display any of the SARS symptoms, also was proud to be a part of the huge comeback against the Thrashers.

"You can't describe the feeling," Rhett said. "You've got to be a part of a group of guys that have gone through some ups and downs to really appreciate it."

Raising Cane in Carolina

With Warrener and Campbell left behind in Buffalo and forward Curtis Brown out for the season with a broken ankle, the Sabres were shorthanded against the Carolina Hurricanes. However, they scored three powerplay goals and beat the Canes 3-1. That was their fourth straight victory of the season and their longest winning streak since the 2000-01 season.

With the Sabres on two different two-man advantages, the Sabres took a 2-0 lead when Satan and Maxim Afinogenov scored first period goals. Then Briere scored the Sabres third goal in the second stanza and that was it for the scoring. The Canes failed to capitalize on all six of their powerplays.

"It's a good feeling when you're able to play like that under such circumstances," admitted Satan.

Ruff was also proud of this troops.

"It was one helluva effort," lauded Ruff. "We got the job done with special teams, and that was the game. We took advantage of our (man advantage) chances early, and they failed to take advantage of theirs."

Mika Noronen started for the Sabres in this one and made 38 saves.

"I thought (he) was excellent," applauded Ruff. "He made key saves when we needed them. He stopped everything he saw."

Sabres shotdown by Stars

While it was an upbeat week on the whole, the Dallas Stars brought the Sabres down to earth Monday night with a 3-0 win. The Sabres could get nothing past Stars goalie Marty Turco, who has been on a roll this season. In fact, Turco is on pace to set a modern day goalie record of Tony Esposito and Al Rollins for a GAA of 1.77. Turco's shutout of the Sabres certainly helped his case.

Richard Matvichuk scored his first goal of the season when he beat Martin Biron at the 7 minute mark of the game. His shot went five-hole and it turned out to be the game winner. Just under 3 minutes later, the Stars had a commanding 2-0 lead when Brendan Morrow deflected a shot by Derian Hatcher past Biron.

With Biron out for the extra attacker late in the game, Rob DiMaio scored into the empty net with a minute left on the clock.

"The schedule caught up with us," admitted Ruff. "We didn't have our legs. And when you don't have legs you don't have hands. It's a tough stretch, playing five games in eight nights."

"They came out of the gates looking for the first goal," said Jay McKee. "They came pretty hard. But once they got the lead, they played very defensively. They really tried to bear down defensively, and probably part of the reason is Turco and the record he could possibly break."

Two games to go

Now the season comes down to game in Boston Saturday and the Sabres mercifully close the season by hosting the New Jersey Devils Sunday. With all the turmoil and disarray this season, both the fans and the players will be happy to put this one behind them. The good news is that one of the trades is working out for the best. Briere has proven to be a good fit on this team and should help the scoring attack next season.

As for the coaching staff and the general manager, Golisano will have to sit down and examine the entire organization before making a decision on how goes and who stays. It has been rumored that Ruff may go to either Columbus or Florida after the season is over. His contract with the club is finished on Sunday and he literally becomes a free agent coach. As for GM Darcy Regier, his status is a huge question mark as the fans are very vocal in their displeasure over how he operated the team the past few years.

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