Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff has spent the past four weeks pleading, shouting and praying for individual Sabres to give a little extra -- to make contributions that are "out of character."
Thursday night, Rhett Warrener scored the game-winner in a 3-1 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers before 17,881 at HSBC Arena. It doesn't get much further out of character than that.
"I don't score often, so when I score they feel pretty good," said Warrener, who now has seven career goals, two this season. "I've got to catch Razor. He has three, I think, so I'm still behind in that department."
Rob Ray, apparently unconcerned about any scoring race with Warrener, was busy playing in character Thursday: it took less than six minutes for Ray and Atlanta's Jeff Odgers to drop the gloves.
By the time the officials had pried Ray off Odgers and ushered the brawlers to their respective penalty boxes, another conflict was brewing. As soon as the puck hit the ice on the ensuing faceoff, Eric Boulton took on Thrashers thug Denny Lambert, who spent most of the tilt with his jersey hanging from its anchoring strap.
All four were still serving fighting majors when, with 7:41 gone in the first period, Miroslav Satan scored his fourth goal of the month. Satan took a feed from Stu Barnes just across the Thrashers' blue line, shifted to his backhand as he veered around Atlanta center Patrik Stefan and flipped the puck past goalie Damian Rhodes.
Atlanta answered four minutes later on a goal from, of all people, Odgers. Stefan passed the puck from behind Dominik Hasek's net and Odgers, who entered the game ranked third in the NHL in penalty minutes, registered his fourth goal of the season on a clean shot from the right faceoff circle.
Out of character as that was for Odgers, it was no match for Warrener's first goal since Nov. 11. Midway through the second period, Warrener took a cross-ice pass from Vaclav Varada and tapped it across the crease and into the net. Vladimir Tsyplakov, a healthy scratch in 14 of the Sabres' past 18 games, recorded his fifth assist of the season on the goal. Tsyplakov now needs just one assist to reach 100 in his career.
The Sabres also got an insurance goal in the third period on a dazzling effort from Maxim Afinogenov. Afinogenov took a pass from Satan at center ice and skated into the Thrashers' zone with defenseman Jiri Slegr marking him all the way. Slegr tried to tie up Afinogenov, but instead lost his stick as the winger broke free. Afinogenov got the puck back on his stick and drove it by Rhodes for his 12th goal of the season.
Playing a physical, defensive-minded game, the Sabres all but eliminated the odd-man rushes Atlanta thrived on in a 5-4 win over Buffalo two days earlier. The Sabres also managed to keep Ray Ferraro, who had a hat trick in Tuesday's game, off the board Thursday. Ruff matched a checking line of Varada, Tsyplakov and Curtis Brown against the Ferraro line most of the night.
"We finished some checks on them," Ruff said. "We made life miserable for them."
Buffalo also caught a break when Andrew Brunette, the left wing on Ferraro's scoring line, left in the first period with what Atlanta coach Curt Fraser described as a charley horse. Brunette did not return, and Ferraro and right wing Donald Audette never quite hit their stride without him. The Thrashers, who had 11 shots on goal in the first period, wound up with just five in the second and five in the third.
"That really hurt us," Fraser said of losing Brunette. "That line, they just work so well together it's tough to find another guy to fit in there right away. We tried just about every combination tonight to try to get them going."
Brunette's absence and Buffalo's renewed defensive resolve spelled the end of Audette's seven-game points streak. Afinogenov and Satan finished with a goal and an assist apiece, while Hasek made 20 saves -- including a couple of spectacular game-savers -- to improve to 22-18-4.
New Sabres Hall of Fame inductees Jerry Korab, Mike Racicot and Mike Ramsey were "knighted" during a pregame ceremony. . . . Ruff said after the game that he intends to play backup goalie Martin Biron, who absorbed a 5-4 loss to Atlanta on Tuesday, about every four or five games for the rest of the season. . . . Winger J.P. Dumont did not dress for the game because of a rib injury he suffered Tuesday. In Dumont's absence, Afinogenov played right wing on the Barnes-Satan line. . . . James Patrick and Chris Taylor were healthy scratches.