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PUPPA DETERMINED TO WIN AGAIN, BUT NEEDS CONFIDENCE BACK FIRST

Daren Puppa knows he's going to win again. He knows why he isn't winning now and what he has to do to start winning.

The only thing he doesn't know is when.

"It will come," Puppa said Saturday. "I'm convinced of that. I know I have to do a few things. I have to get back to game shape, and I have to get my confidence up a bit. It certainly would help to get something going, to get on some kind of a roll. But I know it will come."

It probably won't come tonight. Puppa, coming off a nagging back injury, was not sharp in the limited time he worked Friday (two goals on four shots) during the Sabres' 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Memorial Auditorium. He took himself out of that game after one period (something he rarely does). Clint Malarchuk replaced him, and it's likely Puppa will back up Malarchuk tonight when the St. Louis Blues take the Auditorium ice (7:05, WGR).

Puppa admits he probably wasn't ready to play Friday. He had only two full practices since coming back from a back strain that caused him to miss almost a month of action.

His last start prior to Friday (except for a bit of work against the Soviets in an exhibition game Wednesday) was Nov. 16 at Edmonton. His last win was Nov. 3 at Boston, a point in his career that seems like a lifetime ago.

Still, he wanted to go.

"Yeah, it was a big game (given the tension surrounding the team in recent days) and I wanted to help if I could," he said. "I felt like I could help.

"At the start of the game, I felt good, and mentally I felt real good.

"I think if I had been able to get into it right away, it might have been different."

As it was, Puppa stood around for almost 15 minutes before the Penguins managed more than one shot on goal. During that time, Puppa admited the mental part of the game got the better of him.

"I'm standing down there for what seems like forever, and whenever you do that you start thinking," he said. "When you're not confident, you start thinking about everything you're going to be doing rather than just reacting to what's going on. I was thinking way too much."

Puppa wants to get away from thinking about his game and back to doing. For all the things the Sabres accomplished last season, (98 points and a third-place finish overall), it's fair to say Puppa was the largest contributor. He played so well the team felt the lift every time he made the big save. He played with confidence; they played with more. Seeing them do well moved him to do even better.

It was an obvious give and take that clearly is missing this season, and it paid off with win after win after win, a trip to the All-Star Game and a second-place finish in balloting for the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender.

Neither the team nor Puppa has been able to play at that level this season. For Puppa, it started in training camp.

"That's when I hurt my back," he said. "I hurt it in the first week. I thought it was better later and then it wasn't. And, finally, I had to just rest it. The back injury is the worst. If you break a finger or something, you can keep on working out. Stay in shape. But with your back, it's just rest. You can't do anything with your upper body (strength) or your lower body."

Puppa is trying to compensate for that. At Sabreland Saturday, he went through the on-ice workout, then stayed out for a lengthy post-practice shoot-around. After that, it was a trip to the weight room for work on the stationary bike, the Stairmaster and some free weights.

"My playing well (again) is largely going to be a matter of my getting back my conditioning and my mental outlook," he said. "I need to get a few quality practices in, get my conditioning up, and I haven't had that yet. Getting back to game shape takes a little time."

What about the mental side of it?

"I have to get rid of the negatives, too," he said. "Even in some of the losses, I don't think I played that bad, but you lose the game and you lose confidence. Losses take that away from you."

Winning, whenever it comes, brings it back.

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