Late Tuesday night, the Buffalo Sabres arrived in a blue-collar NHL city.
The team here, backstopped by an All-Star goalie from the Czech Republic, is hip-deep in a grueling stretch of late-season games. Despite a recent spate of injuries and the season-long absence of its talented longtime captain, the club could still contend for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
For the Sabres, playing the Philadelphia Flyers is like looking in a mirror: a slightly warped, smokey mirror.
"They've got some key injuries, we've got some key injuries," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "They've survived with some real good goaltending and have played well without some key players. . . . They're finding ways to win."
In tonight's game (7:30; Empire; 107.7, 1330), the Sabres will meet a foe that looks awfully familiar. Philadelphia has a Roman Cechmanek for every Dominik Hasek, an Eric Lindros for every Michael Peca, a cheesesteak for every Buffalo wing. But, although the teams have faced many of the same challenges, they have found their respective successes through different means.
Buffalo has played mostly in low-scoring games, and the Sabres boast the fewest goals against in the conference (147); Atlantic Division leader Philadelphia has allowed 168 goals -- easily the most of any division leader -- but is scoring an average of three goals a game.
And off the ice the Sabres have remained relatively quiet on the topic of Peca's holdout, while the Flyers and Lindros have conducted many public battles.
This week Eric Desjardins, who took on the Flyers' captaincy after Lindros was stripped of the "C" last season, openly criticized Lindros for trying to force the Flyers' hand by refusing to play anywhere but Toronto. Desjardins told a French-Canadian newspaper that he was glad a potential deal with the Maple Leafs fell through, because he did not think the package Philadelphia stood to receive was equal in value to Lindros.
Lindros retaliated by speculating that Desjardins was merely being used as a mouthpiece for General Manager Bob Clarke. At Wednesday's practice Desjardins stood by his comments, and teammates Mark Recchi and Rick Tocchet seemed to echo them.
"You can't just give away a player of his caliber and not get something reasonably close to that caliber back. Whether it takes now or a year from now, we have to wait," Recchi said. "Clarkie's going to do what he thinks is right for the organization, and he's not going to just give (Lindros) away."
"All I know is the Flyers gave up six, seven players to get him, so you might have to get something near that," Tocchet said.
"He still is a good player, and you've got to make sure you get your value."
The Lindros and Peca affairs are far from identical. The estranged Flyer has been plagued by serious injuries, including a string of concussions, and is bitter over the team's treatment of him -- the Cliff Notes version of the Lindros saga is that he wants out of Philadelphia and into his hometown of Toronto.
Peca wants more money than the Sabres are willing to pay him. Still, both teams have learned that sometimes the only person anyone wants to talk about is the one who isn't there.
"I think it's obviously a bit distracting," the Sabres' Chris Gratton said of Lindros' effect on Philadelphia. "We're in a similar situation here with Pecs. It's tough to deal with, but you've got to try to keep it out of your dressing room and stay focused on the task at hand, and that's winning hockey games. . . . I'm sure (the Flyers) are dealing with the same stuff we are."
Aside from the Lindros circus, the Flyers are dealing with a season-long back injury to standout left wing John LeClair, who began skating on his own Tuesday. They are also dealing with injuries to Tocchet, All-Star center Simon Gagne and rookie scoring threat Justin Williams. The Sabres, meanwhile, are short defenseman Richard Smehlik, winger Vaclav Varada and rookie scoring threat Denis Hamel.
On the up side, the two teams have perhaps the best goaltenders ever to come out of the Czech Republic. Tonight's game could become a duel between Hasek and Cechmanek, former teammates on the Czech Olympic team who must be considered the prime candidates to start in goal for the Czechs in Salt Lake City in 2002.
"Oh, Dominik. Dominik is a big goalie -- a pioneer and the best goalie in the National Hockey League," Cechmanek said, smiling at the thought of taking on the Dominator. "I think that (tonight) we have a big game, and we'll see who wins."
Who's hot: RW J.P. Dumont has three goals and two assists in the last three games.
Record last 5: 4-1
Power play: 45 of 291 (15.5%)
Penalty killing: 31 of 252 (87.7%)
Injuries: D Jason Woolley (knee, probable), D Richard Smehlik (groin), RW Vaclav Varada (concussion), C Denis Hamel (knee, out for season).
Fast fact: Won six of their last seven games.
Who's hot: RW Mark Recchi has six goals and seven assists in the last eight games.
Record last 5: 2-2-1
Power play: 41 of 278 (14.7%)
Penalty killing: 40 of 248 (83.9%)
Injuries: RW Rick Tocchet (groin), C Simon Gagne (shoulder), RW Justin Williams (hand), LW John LeClair (back).
Fast fact: G Roman Cechmanek leads the NHL with a 2.02 goals-against average.