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This is the time of year for optimism. Every team in the National Hockey League goes into training camp with its eye on the Stanley Cup and the Sabres are no different.

But you get the feeling coming into this season that anything less than a Cup victory would be a disappointment considering how this team has progressed over the last three seasons.

They won the first round of the playoffs after the 1996-97 season, Ted Nolan's last year as coach. They won two rounds a year later under Lindy Ruff. Last year, of course, they won three rounds before being eliminated in the Cup finals.

And now, with Dominik Hasek saying he would retire after this season, the window of opportunity for this team to bring a championship to Buffalo is just about closed. Fans in this town can't help but think it's now or never.

"That's our No. 1 priority," captain Michael Peca said. "We're not just saying it because it's the ultimate goal for everyone. Realistically, with the guys we have and with the way we showed ourselves last year, we feel we can do it again.

"It's Dominik's last year, so the team is going to make some sort of stab at it. I think the team is destined for it. I really do."

You have to be careful with destiny. The Washington Capitals might have thought they, too, would move a step closer last season after losing in the final. They missed the playoffs last season and started dismantling their team.

Sunday morning was a good sign for the Sabres. They had at least 25 players show up for an optional skate in preparation for the first practice at training camp today.

Wayne Primeau was among those who attended. He is expected to sign a qualifying offer for a one-year contract of about $525,000 plus bonuses sometime this week. Stu Barnes is planning to attend training camp without a contract. Contracts for the other restricted free agents -- Miroslav Satan, Curtis Brown, Vaclav Varada, Jay McKee and Rhett Warrener -- could take longer, but those deals eventually will get done.

So it appears, with perhaps some tinkering near the trade deadline, everything is in place for at least a legitimate run toward the Cup. The team is no longer building. It's built, and the expectations can't get any higher. It's Stanley Cup or bust.

"The only step left is the Stanley Cup," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "Obviously, that's our long-term focus. The short-term focus is to make the playoffs. I think everybody realizes that the seedings in the playoffs really don't account for too much. There is no easy team to play."

The Sabres realized last year, if not the year before, that where they finish in the regular season means little so long as they're in the postseason. Last year, they were seeded seventh in the Eastern Conference and reached the finals. Two years ago, they were seeded sixth and reached the conference finals.

Still, they want to make sure they get off to a good start. They were the top team in the conference in late December last season and went into the proverbial dumpster. It didn't matter much because they made the playoffs but, without the fast start, their
collapse would have been fatal and their season futile. The regular season does, in fact, matter.

"If you run the risk of that thinking that (the regular season) doesn't mean much, you can put yourself behind the 8-ball and April won't come for you," Ruff said. "You need to be in good position and playing well. It can't be one-dimensional. At the end of the year last year, we were playing well and it wasn't one-dimensional."

Satan, when he signs a contract, brings a 40-goal season with him and expectations for the same next year. Brown had a great year before falling into a slump in the last two months. The Sabres want more scoring production from Primeau, Varada and Stu Barnes. McKee and Warrener made up Buffalo's best defensive tandem toward the end of the year. They need to play equally well this year.

Michal Grosek had career highs in goals and assists but did not score a goal (0-4-4) in the 13 postseason games he played in. Michael Peca, Dixon Ward and Jason Woolley had career years. Now, they need to duplicate those seasons or improve, and that's asking a bunch. So what.

"There's no question expectations are real steep," Woolley said. "Every guy on this team knows that. There's no question we all want the same goal, and that has never changed. But we also realize that there are a lot of factors that can help or hinder you to get as far as we did last year. There's a lot of luck involved. All the pieces have to be there."

The key, as it has been for years, will be Hasek. The Dominator won his fifth Vezina Trophy in six years last season and was virtually unbeatable in the first round against Ottawa. His play set up the Sabres for the rest of the playoffs, and they responded by picking up their games in the final three rounds.

He has shown over the years that he can take over a game by himself. Knowing he probably wouldn't have another chance, he almost single-handedly won the gold medal for the Czech Republic in the 1998 Winter Olympics. The only prize left for him is having his name inscribed on the Stanley Cup.

And time is running out.

"There's always a sense of urgency," forward Brian Holzinger said. "We know how difficult it was to make it there and how difficult it is to get to the same position again.

"But when you have the best goaltender in the world, and he says it's his final season, you want to make it a special one. What better way to do it than the final year of Dominik Hasek's career?"

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