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The game before it was the centers' turn. Saturday night it was the defensemen leading the Buffalo Sabres to victory.

Richard Smehlik, rounding back into form after missing all of last season with a knee injury, scored two goals, defensive partner Alexei Zhitnik registered three assists and Darryl Shannon, another blue liner, also scored in Buffalo's 6-3 triumph over the Hartford Whalers at Marine Midland Arena.

Centers scored four of the goals in Buffalo's 6-3 victory over Montreal here Thursday.

A crowd of 16,193 saw the Sabres continue their early-season turnabout and post their fourth victory in a row going into tonight's game (7, Empire, Radio 550, 710) against the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden. It's the start of a four-game road trip for Buffalo, which is over the .500 mark for the first time since last December.

Anatoli Semenov, Pat LaFontaine, and even Rob Ray got into the scoring act for Buffalo. It was the first goal as a Sabre for newcomer Semenov. Ray got his first since last Feb. 16. He had only three last season.

Robert Kron, Kevin Dineen and Andrei Nikolishin scored for Hartford, which saw its three-game winning streak ended.

Smehlik, who also had an assist, was the game's first star. Zhitnik and LaFontaine were the second and third stars.

"I was pretty happy scoring two goals," said Smehlik. "I had a chance for another one in the third period, but I did not put it in."

"Richard's made a real big comeback," said Sabres coach Ted Nolan. " Tonight, I thought he was sensational both ways. He's a workhorse. He's going to play 25-30 minutes a game for us. The more he plays the better he's going to get."

The Whalers came to the M-Arena 5-1. Although outshot, 29-26, the Sabres took it to Hartford with speed and balance as well as steady goaltending from Dominik Hasek, who posted his 100th career victory in the NHL.

Two weeks ago, the Sabres were 1-4 after scoring only six goals the first five games, and there were media reports of dissension in the ranks of management which seemed to be affecting the young team.

Now Buffalo has scored 20 goals in four games and looks nothing like a demoralized hockey club.

"The atmosphere around here is great," said winger Dixon Ward. "This whole organization has pulled together the last two weeks."

On the ice it certainly has.

Nolan has four lines skating hard and learning how to use the team's greatest asset, speed, on the larger new ice surface.

Semenov, making a rare appearance on the Buffalo power play because Donald Audette was out of the lineup with a groin injury, opened the scoring with a drive from the right circle which beat Hartford goaltender Sean Burke to the glove side. Burke had been out since Oct. 12 with back spasms and might have been rusty.

The Whalers rebounded with two power-play goals of their own, by Kron on a rebound and Dineen from the slot.

Then Buffalo struck for two goals within 37 seconds to grab the lead for good.

Zhitnik's long lead pass sent LaFontaine in alone on Burke for his second goal of the season at 14:56 of the first period.

Smehlik scored from the left circle with assists from Michael Peca and Randy Burridge to put Buffalo ahead to stay, 3-2, at 15:33 of the first.

Smehlik got his second goal with a long shot after taking a point-to-point pass from Zhitnik on the power play at 6:36 of the second period.

"I was kind of lucky," Smehlik said. "I just tried to shoot it at the net and it goes in."

LaFontaine centered a line for Curtis Brown and Brian Holzinger, who moved from center to wing in Audette's absence. Semenov centered for Ray and Ward.

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