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HEAT'S ON AS SABRES GET BURNED

Michael Peca had to be sitting in an easy chair Thursday night, legs propped, a protein milkshake by his side, wondering how much longer this can possibly go on.

The Sabres are reeling. They are sitting on, in Peca, an asset redeemable only through trade. The All-Star break is here. The Fed has cut interest rates 50 basis points. Is not the market ripe for dealing? Would not the Sabres be better served with on-ice reinforcements than submerging themselves in boardroom politics? Or are they content to fritter away a playoff spot in the name of economic justice, curious as that logic might be?

General Manager Darcy Regier has encountered a climatic aberration. He must be the first guy to go from Florida to Buffalo in February and swear that someone turned up the heat. And the kettle is whistling heartily after the Sabres fell to the lowly Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-2, in the sparsely filled Ice Palace.

"It's not about (Peca's) situation," Sabres defenseman Rhett Warrener said. "It's about losing and winning. How could we be successful up to now without him? Maybe with another player we still wouldn't be getting the job done.

"It's about no timely goals, not getting shots through, giving one extra stride on
the backcheck," Warrener said. "Hopefully, it will be like last year. We weren't too good before the break, then we made a charge to make the playoffs. We get back to practice on Monday and every guy's gotta be ready to give 110 percent."

The game was not without good news. The Sabres exploded for two goals for the third straight outing. Doug Gilmour put forth his best performance in months and scored his first goal since before Christmas.

Stu Barnes had the other goal for Buffalo, his second in three games.

But the scale tilted for the worse. Goaltender Martin Biron followed up Dominik Hasek's shaky effort in Wednesday's loss at Florida with a clunker of his own; he stopped a penalty shot but two he let in were a matter of glovehand betrayal.

"It's the kind of game you look back at disappointed," Biron said. "Every puck felt like I was battling it. Every puck I had in my glove felt like it was coming out."

The defensive breakdowns were numerous, with Tampa's inability to hit the net skewing the shot totals in Buffalo's favor.

So the Sabres hit the All-Star break having lost four of five. They have nine goals in their last seven games, a pace that might cut it in the World Cup play-ins but certainly not during the run to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Their cushion over the Carolina Hurricanes, ninth overall in the Eastern Conference, is down to two points. If they can't have Peca it's looking like they better get something.

"In some ways, of course," Gilmour said. "But I don't want to comment on that. That's a decision between those parties (Regier and Peca)."

Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, Kristian Kudroc and Mike Johnson did the damage for the Lightning. Johnson put the game away with the only goal of the third period, a tap-in off a two-on-one break perfectly orchestrated by Todd Warriner.

The Sabres put good pressure on Kevin Weekes throughout the first period. They sustained their forechecking. They buzzed the net with abandon. They outshot the Lightning, 11-5. Did they score? Of course not. Richards' goal at 7:17 stood up for the period and the Lightning, a winner once in its last 11 games, headed for the dressing room with a 1-0 lead.

The Sabres opened the second period with a two-man advantage for 24 seconds followed by a one-man edge for 1:49. Not only did they fail to score, they coughed up a short-handed goal when a pinch by Jason Woolley backfired into a two-on-one break for the Bolts.

Biron made a nice play in blocking a crossing attempt with his stick. He went to cover the puck with his glove only to have it slither away to St. Louis, who snapped it into the upper half.

The Sabres regrouped to tie it 2-2 but the lead was never theirs. The Florida trip was a bust, a "giant step backwards" in the words of coach Lindy Ruff.

Which brings the Peca situation back front and center.

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