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It's midnight in the back rooms of the Marine Midland Arena, and Buffalo Sabres coach Ted Nolan is starting to question everything he believes in.

His team has just delivered yet another poor performance in front of a crowd that seemed to be much smaller than the announced number (13,371) and he doesn't know why.

He's vowed to make them pay a physical price for an apparent lack of effort in the 4-0 loss to Tampa Bay, but you can tell he doesn't really believe it will work.

He questions why his team can't score. He wonders why it isn't physical. He agonizes over every one of its many mistakes. He knows this was much the same a year ago, but he was able to overcome much of that. This year it's just not happening.

Nolan doesn't know why, but he doesn't stop looking for answers.

"I won't quit," he said. "It's frustrating and I'll admit there are things going on that I just don't understand, but I won't quit on these guys. We'll keep working to find ways to make it better. I owe it to the players and to myself."

The cynic in me says that making this team better is just not possible, but I wouldn't bet against Ted Nolan just yet.

He's been dealt a bad hand. He doesn't have size. He doesn't have scoring. He doesn't have toughness -- especially without Brad May and Matthew Barnaby in the lineup -- and he doesn't have much experienced help. Making things worse is the fact Pat LaFontaine has started the season with a scoring slump and Dominik Hasek hasn't been able to stop every single shot. (Believe it or not, the entire organization this past offseason acted like he really could). Most of the kids Nolan has on hand aren't really ready for NHL play.

Worse yet, he isn't getting any help. Everyone in the organization can go on radio or television and deny there's a rift between the coaching staff and upper management, but every player in the locker room knows that there is. They talk about it daily. They wonder what will happen next.

Nolan does too, but while it appears the clock is already ticking against him, he's still searching for ways to win.

"I still believe in the character of this club," he said. "I know they're frustrated right now and so am I, but I believe in their ability to step up and work through it. I know the fans are booing and they're discouraged with what they've seen and I don't blame them, I guess I'd boo, too. Certainly we have to show people we deserve their support and we haven't done that yet, but . . . I don't believe we're ready to just give up."

Nolan does still have a few things going for him. For one, he hasn't lost the respect of his players. LaFontaine knows he's struggling, but he's quick to point out it's his problem, not Nolan's. Garry Galley still has his head up and is pitching teammates to do the same. Others are questioning themselves, not Nolan.

"I know how it looks, but I know this team still believes in each other," said defenseman Bob Boughner. "And I know the coaching staff believes in us, too."

Boughner also has put his faith in Nolan, a coach he's had in junior hockey and one he's seen handle difficult times in the past.

"Ted has a way of keeping your spirits up even when things don't look that good," he said. "He might get down sometimes too, but he always comes back. He knows if we let it get to us and we get frustrated, our confidence level will really be low. This isn't the time for something like that."

Encouraging words in what is certainly a less than encouraging time, but it may not be enough. This is a team that needs a break. It could be as simple as having one of those five great chances LaFontaine had actually finding the back of the net. It may be as complex as the owner (whoever that is) or general manager making a move to give the team a sense of hope when it's needed most.

Nolan can't make either of those things happen, so he searches for something else. On this night there are no answers, but he won't stop looking.

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