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MAINTENANCE MAN
A RESTED DOUG GILMOUR STILL THINKS HE AND THE SABRES CAN CLEAN UP THIS SEASON

Doug Gilmour was sitting on a pushcart just outside the Buffalo Sabres' dressing room, his right elbow on his knee and his hand on his chin. In a way, his body position resembled a sculpture, "The Thinker," from a different era and set in stone.

Gilmour was still sweating. He had not yet taken off his skates or his practice jersey. His fingers were rubbing his chin, which was covered by a tiny beard considered stylish by today's MTV youth. It was a rare day when he wasn't rushing out of the dressing room after practice and speeding home.

It seems the beard, highlighted by gray whiskers, was Gilmour's way of staying young for a few more months. He's contemplating crossing the line that separates him from his former teammates and opponents, who are like ghosts in retirement. Soon, he will look back at others, as his predecessors did him.

He's 37, still young by life's standards but an old man when it comes to hockey. His face is battered from 18 seasons and some 1,300 games in the NHL. He needs days off from practice; maintenance days, he calls them.

Ten years ago, maintenance wasn't rest. It was more work. These days, getting out of bed is a chore. Two months ago, you wondered whether the season and his career would, as planned, reach coincidental conclusions. His back ached. His pelvis throbbed. It seemed the only fire in his belly was caused by inflammation in his abdomen.

"You look at anybody that's going to be 33, 34 and up, you're going to have maintenance days," Gilmour said. "It's not because you're injured. It's just maintenance. You're going to have a bothered joint here or there. I'm high-maintenance right now."

Gilmour has three goals and 20 assists. He's making $6 million this season. Half is being paid by the Sabres as part of their agreement with the Chicago Blackhawks. Never this late in the season has he been able to count his goals without using pinky or thumb. Fans have yearned for the Doug Gilmour of old and instead have received an old Doug Gilmour.

Obviously, it has been a vexatious year on many fronts. There were whispers that Gilmour, although he wasn't asking for one, wouldn't object to a trade. San Jose was interested. He wondered whether the Sabres' system was sucking the creativity, the life, from his game. It might explain why he wasn't skating well, why he looked uninterested on some nights, why the bite was missing.

His ice time diminished. Twelve minutes one night against Washington, 14 against the New York Islanders, 15 against San Jose, 11 against Toronto. It was embarrassing for a player likely headed for the Hall of Fame. He had a cacophony of voices in his ear, demanding answers.

"Hey, listen, every player has their own feelings on how much they should play, where they should play and why they should play," Gilmour said. "Everybody wants to do more. If you don't have that attitude that you don't want to do more, if you don't set goals, then you don't have any expectations.

"There's going to be talk from different people," he said. "People watch how much goes on here. You get phone calls from your friends and your family and your agent that you should be playing more. Everybody had an opinion. I'm not a selfish player, but do I want to play? Of course I want to play. That's the bottom line."

Gilmour didn't realize that the Sabres had different ideas about the bottom line. Coach Lindy Ruff's decision to cut his ice time was not punitive but preparation for the playoffs. Ruff was putting Gilmour's season on ice by keeping him off the ice, effectively turning an 82-game regular season into a 60-gamer for an aging winger who had already missed 10 games with nagging muscle problems.

It didn't make sense to play him 21 minutes a game in December and January and risk having him play zero minutes in March and April. The two men calmly talked things over. It was a discussion between two former captains, two men who understood their roles, two men with mutual respect.

"I understood where he was coming from," Ruff said. "You sit and watch the team kill penalties for five or six minutes and then another line goes out and then there's another penalty. And you sit there. You don't feel involved. . . . The thinking was to try to get him back to that form where he would be really effective for us. I talked to Dave Andreychuk about the same thing. Their ice time in the last 25 games is going to go up. Hopefully, that will prime us for the playoffs."

"Now I understand what they're doing," Gilmour said. "At the time, I didn't. They're pretty much saving me for the end."

When is the end?

How well Gilmour performs through the final stretch of the season and the playoffs will largely determine the end. He has been skating better, with more vigor, since his conversation with Ruff. He tied Bryan Trottier for 12th all-time with 901 assists and Gilbert Perreault for 19th all-time with 1,326 points when he set up Andreychuk for a goal last week. The accomplishment mattered little afterward and was just another example of how much closer he is to the end than the beginning.

Gilmour is adamant about remaining in Buffalo for the end. "Do I want to go anywhere? No," he said. "I want to stay here."

It appears the Sabres want to keep him.

"We need him," Ruff said. "If his level of play stays where he is right now, it's a huge bonus for us."

The Sabres want to keep him for the same reasons the Sharks want to acquire him: He can make the difference in the playoffs. He scored the winner for Calgary in the 1989 Stanley Cup finals. This is his last chance to repeat that.

Gilmour had a three-game point streak end last week against the New York Islanders. He hadn't recorded points in three straight games since the first week of the season. He took a foolish penalty toward the end of the Islanders game when he swatted giant Zdeno Chara, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound defenseman, across the chin. It was a bad penalty but a great sign. He was regaining the intensity. It seemed the old Doug Gilmour was back.

"Lately, you see his grit, his tenacity," defenseman Rhett Warrener said. "He's getting in people's faces. He's taking punches, giving punches. That's what everybody remembers about Dougie. He realizes that this may be his last part, and it's time to go out and make the most of it and see what happens. You don't want to go out saying, 'I should have done this or I should have done that.' He's a guy that wants to go out on top."

Gilmour will have that chance. He feels fully healthy for the first time since October, when he had false optimism about continuing his career beyond this season. Reality has since sobered his outlook, and Ruff wisely rested Gilmour enough to keep him hungry and healthy.

Forget the three goals so far this season. He's capable of scoring three times that many and setting up heaven knows how many more in the postseason. There was a sense, as he sat there with hand on chin, that he was thinking about what the Sabres could accomplish with any momentum. And there was a sense he inched closer to calling his career complete with his conscience clear before he joined friends and foes on the other side.

"If I'm feeling comfortable with myself, that's what matters," he said. "As long as my team is comfortable, that's what matters. Do I want more points? Of course I do. Am I going to sit there and dwell on the fact that I don't have them? No, I'm not. I'm going to look at the big picture here and what's ahead of us.

"You know how I want to go out. Whether it's a great year, an average year or a poor year, I can't go back and say, 'What if I wasn't hurt or what if I did this or what if I did that.' I'm not here to make excuses. I'm looking ahead. What I think can happen with this team is very positive."

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