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HARTMAN IS SCORING MORE, BUT HEARING LESS SABRES WINGER MISINTERPRETS FRIEND'S REMARKS, THEN DROPS HIS GLOVES

The Buffalo Sabres were to examine the injured shoulders of defensemen Doug Bodger and Brian Curran Sunday.

While they're at it, they might want to check on Mike Hartman's hearing as well.

A misunderstood remark prompted Hartman to battle New Jersey's Troy Crowder Saturday night during the Sabres' 4-4 road tie with the Devils.

Hartman never shies away from a fight, but this time his reaction defied common sense. First of all, Crowder is the National Hockey League's undisputed heavyweight champion, a vicious puncher who counts Detroit tough guy Bob Probert among his pummelled victims.

But it's the friendship between Hartman and Crowder that made this the unlikeliest of matchups.

"We've been good friends ever since we played together in juniors," Hartman said.

Crowder never had any intention of challenging Hartman Saturday night. In fact, Crowder was complimenting Hartman on his first-period goal when Hartman dropped his gloves and the two went at it.

What Crowder said was, "Nice goal." What Hartman heard was, "Let's go."

"I found out when I talked to guys on his team," Hartman said. "They couldn't figure out why (we fought), because we're such good friends."

Crowder won the decision, but sustained a hand cut that required eight stitches and sidelined him for the remainder of the game.

Hartman might want to listen more attentively before dropping the gloves again. Otherwise, his recent goal-scoring prowess could get him in all kinds of trouble.

Hartman expected big things of himself this season after leading all Sabres scorers during training camp. But an early-season slump, along with an elbow infection that sidelined him for eight games, conspired to send Hartman into December seeking his first goal.

"I was very disappointed," Hartman said. "I got off to a slow start, then I got hurt. Things didn't go that well right away and the team was in a slump. It seemed like everything went bad. Things were bad for the first 10 or 15 games."

Hartman's luck has turned for the better. He has five goals in December heading into the final game of the month, tonight's New Year's Eve clash against the Philadelphia Flyers at Memorial Auditorium (7:35, cable, WGR). He has scored in the last three games.

"The team itself is playing better, and when the team is going well, I guess it rubs off on everybody," said Hartman. "A lot of guys are starting to play real well."

Indeed, centers Dale Hawerchuk and Christian Ruuttu have come to the forefront, while struggling center Pierre Turgeon continues to press. Ruuttu has four goals and four assists over the last four games. Hawerchuk, who scored twice against the Devils, has six goals and 10 assists in his last 12 games.

For Hartman, the five-goal month rekindles some hope of chasing his first 20-goal season in the NHL. Certainly playing the left side on a line with Benoit Hogue and Alexander Mogilny has increased Hartman's scoring chances.

"Earlier in the season, I wanted 20 goals," Hartman said. "But at this point in time, I just want to play each game hard. You never know what can happen in the end."

As for Bodger and Curran, results from their examinations will not be known until later today.

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