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BARNES ANCHORS HOT LINE

Stu Barnes has a talent for hiding in plain view.

On the road, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound center for the Buffalo Sabres can walk through a hotel lobby unnoticed while teammates with lesser resumes but greater bulk are hounded for autographs. He'll probably do so when he leaves for tonight's game against the New Jersey Devils (7:30, Empire, 107.7 & 1330).

On the ice, he has even better camouflage - Barnes has played all season alongside a quick-handed sniper who shares a name with the Prince of Darkness, which is more than enough to deflect attention from an ordinary guy from Spruce Grove, Alberta.

When the third member of Barnes' line was winger J.P. Dumont, the team's leading scorer at the All-Star break, at least it was still known as "the Barnes line." Now that Dumont has been replaced with the mile-a-minute cyclone that is Maxim Afinogenov, the line isn't even named for its center anymore: it's Miro and Max, Max and Miro.

Since Afinogenov's arrival on the top line in a Feb. 15 game against Atlanta, the three players have notched 15 points in three games. Only three of those points - all assists - belonged to Barnes.

That statistic might lead one to believe that the center isn't pulling his weight, but nothing could be further from the truth. Stationed between a pair of slick-skating, goal- minded Europeans, Barnes is the grounded veteran of the line. His job is to hold things together, to insure that the line never gets fatally fancy.

"If you have a responsible centerman, you can feel more comfortable, more confident to try to create something," Satan said. "I'm the player who needs to know that there's going to be somebody responsible so I can go and do my stuff."

So while Satan and Afinogenov go to market, Barnes often stays home, both to cut down on goals against and to spark big plays coming out of the defensive zone.

"The fact of how well Stu has played in his own end has limited that amount of time where, if he wasn't playing that well in his own end, they would spend more time playing in there," coach Lindy Ruff said. "His defensive play has led to that line being able to go up ice and create opportunities."

Barnes, who scored 30 goals just three seasons ago with Pittsburgh, seems perfectly happy to watch his linemates collect the points and the praise. At 30, he is four years older than Satan and nine years Afinogenov's senior, and he is every bit the stabilizing force an elder statesman should be.

"I've been fortunate to have a chance to be out there with these guys and watch them score all these fancy goals," he said. "I think we start with defense and if we can make sure we don't get scored against, and create some turnovers and go the other way and play some offense, then I think we're a lot better club."

If Barnes needs to blend into the scenery to make that happen, so be it. Without Afinogenov's stunning speed, Rob Ray's ready fists or Martin Biron's gift for gab, Barnes is unlikely to ever hear any "Stuuuu" chants outside the HSBC Arena. What he does hear are words of gratitude from his coach and his linemates.

"Stu has been great at driving through lanes and making sure he does a good job defensively, and I think it's led to great plays going the other way," Ruff said.

"He's just a stone on our line," Satan said of Barnes' steadying effect. "He's playing smart defensively and offensively, and he's helping us to be better players."

BUFFALO SABRES

Who's hot: G Dominik Hasek has allowed a combined two goals over the past three games

Record last 5: 3-2

Power play: 40 of 265 (15.1%)

Penalty killing: 29 of 234 (87.6%)

Injuries: Out - Denis Hamel (knee). Questionable - Winger Dave Andreychuk (knee), LW Vladimir

Tsyplakov (abdomen).

Fast fact: Tied for second-fewest goals allowed in NHL

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

Who's hot: LW Pierre Dagenais has two goals in first two NHL games.

Record last 5: 1-2-2

Power play: 45 of 216 (20.8%)

Penalty killing: 34 of 229 (85.2%)

Injuries: Out - RW Alexander Mogilny (stomach muscle). Questionable - RW Petr Sykora (shoulder), C

Jason Arnott (back), C Scott Gomez (back)

Fast fact: Sykora and LW Patrik Elias on preliminary Czech Republic Olympic roster with Hasek

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