- It's time for the Buffalo Sabres to come up with an opening-day roster and start playing games for real.
The Sabres won their final "dress rehearsal" of the 1999 preseason Monday night, beating the Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-2, before an announced crowd of 14,431 in Copps Coliseum. Buffalo concluded the preseason schedule with a 2-4-1 record.
The game represented one last chance for players to impress head coach Lindy Ruff before he cuts the roster down in anticipation of Saturday's regular-season opener against the Red Wings in Detroit. The Sabres must go from 29 players to 23 by Saturday; the league maximum has dropped from 24 to 23 for the coming season. Some of those cuts could come today, Ruff said.
The Sabres will go into this season in goal with the same look as last season. Dominik Hasek played the entire game for Buffalo Monday. He was particularly sharp in the first period, when the Maple Leafs had several good scoring chances and had nothing to show for it. Hasek, who finished with 32 saves, looked fully recovered from offseason surgery.
"I felt good," Hasek said. "I was pretty busy and I feel tired. I don't know if the building was hot or the ice was bad, but I'm tired. I feel I need a couple of practices to be ready for the season. I still need to work on my conditioning."
Ruff added, "Dom looked very good. . . . He handled the puck well, and he was up and down a lot (without any problem)."
Ruff all but said Dwayne Roloson will be Hasek's backup to start the season while Martin Biron will return to Rochester to start his second year in the American Hockey League. The Sabres want Biron to get playing time as the team prepares for Hasek's retirement next summer.
On defense, Buffalo will be inexperienced until Jay McKee and Rhett Warrener sign new contracts. Veterans Alexei Zhitnik, Richard Smehlik, James Patrick and Jason Woolley will be back, and rookies Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre and Cory Sarich are the top candidates to be in the regular defensive rotation.
Free-agent invitee Dennis Vial probably will be assigned to Rochester or released. That would mean Brian Campbell, Mike Hurlbut and Jason Holland are fighting for a single job if the team keeps seven defensemen. It would be a surprise if Campbell was on the opening-night roster, but the first-year pro has impressed everyone with his offensive abilities in preseason games (two goals and an assist).
"You've got to give him some serious consideration," Ruff said. "He's played very well for us."
Up front, the line combinations are still scrambled by the contract disputes of Miroslav Satan and Curtis Brown. It's expected that Dixon Ward, Michael Peca and Vaclav Varada will be back together on a line. It's fair to say that Geoff Sanderson, Brian Holzinger, Stu Barnes, Paul Kruse, Rob Ray, Wayne Primeau, Michal Grosek and Erik Rasmussen are safe. That's 11 out of 14 spots occupied, if the Sabres keep two spare forwards. Matt Davidson and Chris Taylor are logical candidates to go to Rochester. That would leave Domenic Pittis, David Moravec and Maxim Afinogenov on the Buffalo roster for the time being. Pittis has enjoyed a good preseason and Ruff said Monday it will be hard not to keep him for the start of the season. Moravec's unique contract situation adds a little uncertainty to the situation. He can either play in Buffalo or go back to the Czech Republic, but he can not play in Rochester.
Ruff wasn't happy with Afinogenov's play Monday. The Russian winger saw little action in the final 30 minutes, and Ruff sounded like he wasn't completely sold on Afinogenov quite yet.
"He stayed out for a two-minute shift at one point," Ruff said. "I talked about keeping the shifts short, 30 or 40 seconds. I only gave him a couple of shifts after that. He has got to learn that if you're going to win a game you have to play as a team. He needs a lot of work. Maxim is going to be a fabulous player, but he has to learn the game over here. . . . He is going to have to be responsible."
In Monday's game, Barnes, Woolley and Campbell put Buffalo ahead, 3-0, by the 14-minute mark of the second period. Mike Johnson scored late in the second period to put Toronto on the scoreboard. Sylvain Cote made it interesting in the final minutes with a late goal, but the Sabres held off the Maple Leafs the rest of the way.
"I saw some things I liked," Ruff said. "The bite was back in some players' games. There was some hitting. Our speed was evident again. It's been a training camp in which some games have been a little lackluster, but I think that's to be expected. It's pretty hard to drive up the tempo when on some nights we've only had six or seven veterans in the lineup."
The Sabres were not affected by Monday's NHL waiver draft. They did not claim any players from the rosters of other teams, and they didn't lose any. . . . Primeau is suffering from a lower back injury, while Patrick has back spasms. Both players sat out Monday's game.