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IS SABRES' LACK OF EFFORT A REFLECTION OF THEIR STAR?

I I'M TRYING MY hardest to be positive about it, this being the holiday season and all. I mean, if Rick Dudley says he never has felt this good about the Sabres, who am I to argue with the guy?

Sure, they managed to tie the Bruins, 3-3, Wednesday night at the Aud. That extends their unbeaten streak to two games, a monumental achievement by this season's standards and a lot more than they deserved.

You'd have to search underneath a lot of Christmas trees to find a more ugly tie. And if you looked closely, you could see a familiar and disturbing pattern running through it.

This was a big game -- big as December games in the NHL go, anyway. It was against the hated nemesis, the team that plays hockey the way Dudley only wishes his would.

Games against the Bruins usually are a dependable gauge of the Sabres' progress. This figured to be an indication of whether they were ready to turn it around and extricate their coach from the hot seat once and for all.

So what did they do? They came out utterly flat and unready to play, which often seems to happen when the game is a big one. They played as if they had come straight to the rink from the Christmas party. For the first half of the game, they were dominated thoroughly by the Bruins for the third time this month.

"Obviously they didn't party as much as we did over the holiday," Dudley said when asked to explain his team's horrible start.

It's hard to put into words how awful the Sabres played for that first 30 minutes. With the notable exception of Rob Ray and Mike Hartman, no one showed the vaguest interest in taking the body.

Their wondrous "skills" weren't much in evidence, either.

During one stretch of 11:26 spanning the first two periods, they didn't have a single shot on goal. It was astounding that, halfway through the game, they trailed by only 2-1. They had earned much worse.

I'm beginning to understand why Dudley likes Hartman and Ray so much. He can always count on them showing up on time. Put Hartman's heart and Ray's resolve inside Pierre Turgeon and you'd have one heck of a hockey player.

You might even have a superstar, a distinction that has been bestowed mistakenly on Turgeon from time to time since he came into the league as an 18-year-old. But from what I've seen, Turgeon is no superstar.

Superstars show up in big games. They're at their best when the competition is the stiffest. But Turgeon, as usual, was hardly a factor against the Bruins. If this was a mid-season test of the Sabres' character, their alleged franchise player failed it. He had no shots on goal, and no physical shots on any Bruins, as if you needed to be apprised of that.

I don't mean to put all the blame on Turgeon, but I'm getting tired of all the heat being directed at the coach and the general manager. Neither is blameless, but it's time for some of the supposed stars to stand up and be counted.

You might as well start with Sneaky Pete. Heaven knows, Turgeon has had it easy up to now. He was so young, such a nice fellow. He didn't know the language. He had so much pressure on him. The guy might be the most coddled athlete this city has ever seen.

Most teams are a reflection of their star player. That seems to be the case with the Sabres. Every criticism leveled at the team could be construed as a criticism of Pierre: Too timid, doesn't play every night, disappears in the big games, doesn't go to the net enough . . .

Maybe Turgeon is destined for greatness. But I wonder if it will be a flawed greatness, like Gil Perreault's, a "what if" sort of greatness.

The same goes for this team. It seems the only thing it knows how to do well anymore is tie. Maybe that's because the Sabres have forgotten how to win, and no one is capable of stepping forward to remind them.

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