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Rick Dudley was in the hot tub when the phone rang Monday afternoon. He sounded unusually upbeat for a man whose customary place these days isn't the hot tub, but the hot seat. In fact, even though the Sabres have played below expectations all season and endangered his job security, he said he's never felt better about his team.

"I've seen a lot of good things lately," Dudley said as the hot tub apparatus churned in the background. "I feel better about this hockey team now, for the long run, than I have since I started coaching here. I see a lot of grit, a lot of people who come to play every night. And it's starting to rub off."

That's lofty praise for a team that is only 3-7-1 in the month of December and sits 15 points out of first place in the Adams Division -- a division that a solid majority of North America's pro hockey experts expected the Sabres to win this season.

Dudley would certainly feel a lot better about his club if it beats the Boston Bruins in Memorial Auditorium this evening (7:35, cable; WGR). Boston, after all, is the team Buffalo must beat if it intends to realize those preseason predictions. And more importantly, the Bruins will likely pose the greatest obstacle to the Sabres in the Stanley Cup playoffs come springtime, as is often the case.

It would also be a nice time for the Sabres to reestablish the semblance of a home-ice advantage. They are a dreadful 5-6-5 at the Aud this season, and had lost four straight before breaking out for a 10-3 victory over Quebec here Sunday night.

"We haven't played real well at a lot of times this year," Dudley said. "We've had both good and bad streaks, and unfortunately we've just gone through a bad streak and a lot of it was at home. It's tough to play anywhere when you're going bad."

A little more than a year ago, the Sabres were virtually unbeatable on their home ice. They began the 1989-90 season with a 14-game home unbeaten string, and were one win away from a record of 13 straight home wins when the Bruins came to town in mid-December. Boston won that night, 4-2, and the Sabres haven't been the same at home since.

Counting playoffs, Buffalo is a rather ordinary 20-18-8 at the Aud since that game. What's more, they haven't beaten the Bruins here since. They tied here, 3-3, on Halloween night and were dominated for much of the game in a 3-2 loss on Dec. 9. So if the Sabres hope to turn the season around, this would be a good time to start.

"I'm not trying to downplay anything," Dudley said. "But lately we've just been playing them one at a time, so obviously we want to win it. Then we want to win the one after that. We're playing reasonably good hockey lately and it's kind of fun for fans to watch. I like what I've seen lately. We're not all the way there, but we're working pretty hard."

While Dudley won't admit it, this would be an especially gratifying win, both for the team and him personally. After the Sabres' woeful 4-1 loss in Boston last Thursday -- a game in which Buffalo's five biggest thugs went out for the last shift of the game -- Boston veteran tough guy Chris Nilan ripped Dudley's methods and said he was destined for the unemployment line.

"They shouldn't talk too much," said Buffalo defenseman Uwe Krupp. "If we sent out a couple of our big guys in the last few minutes, what's wrong with that? They played a whole NHL series against us like that. And at the time it was all great (for them). The Bruins have a pretty good way of flipping things their way."

A lot has been flipping Boston's way in recent weeks. Despite blowing a three-goal lead and settling for a 5-5 tie Sunday night in New York, the Bruins are 5-1-2 in their last eight games. Their top forwards, Cam Neely and Craig Janney, are rolling along on point-scoring streaks. And their top goalie, Andy Moog, is unbeaten in his last six starts.

"It's not like 'They're the Boston Bruins and they have a much better team than we do,' or that we're a better team than they are," Krupp said. "Hockey's so close right now, in the Adams Division especially."

Well, if the Sabres lose tonight, they'll fall 17 points back of Boston in a division they were supposed to win. That doesn't sound very close at all.

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