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Olympic intermission is a test for Sabres' chemistry

Chris Drury knows a thing or two about that elusive thing called team chemistry. Drury played on a Stanley Cup winner in Colorado in 2001. He went to four straight conference finals there. He won the NCAA championship with Boston University in 1995. He pitched his team to a Little League World Series title in 1989.

But Drury says he has never been on a team with quite the same chemistry as this year's Sabres.

"This is pretty unique, especially since no one gave us a chance to do anything," the Buffalo co-captain said. "It makes it pretty sweet. But we know there's still a long road ahead. We need to keep that chemistry going, continue to work hard for each other, and hopefully we'll get the same results."

The results have been stunning for three months. On Nov. 14, the Sabres were 8-9. They went 27-6-4 over the next 37 games. That's one of the most remarkable rolls in franchise history. They've run off winning streaks of seven, six and five games.

The Sabres have done it without any true stars, without a player among the NHL's top 70 scorers and, for long stretches, without some of their best players. When injuries struck, they simply plugged in the next anonymous face from Rochester and continued soaring toward the top of the league.

Just when you think they're about to slip, they start another streak. Two-thirds of the way through the season, the Sabres have the best road record in the East. If they maintain their stride over the final two months, they might just finish first in the conference.

So it'll be a little unsettling to see them shut down for the Olympics after today's game. Sure, it'll give the injured time to heal. But there's no telling how a 16-day break might affect the Sabres. Team chemistry can be a delicate thing. The players and coaches spent five months forming that elusive, competitive bond.

Coaches worry for a living. Lindy Ruff, a notorious worrier and tinkerer, does wonder if it will be difficult to recapture the magic when the Sabres come back together.

"Well, yeah, I do," Ruff said. "I think you want some structure in place for the break. We have a young team. You can't control individuals for a certain period of time. You just hope what you talk about and try to instill will be there when you get back. I think it's pride. There is a lot of pride in that room, and a lot of selfless play."

Drury said he's looking forward to playing for the USA in Turin. He won a silver medal at Salt Lake City in 2002. He said a gold would be nice this time. But he wasn't all that convincing. You could hear the ambivalence in his voice. It's hard for Drury to contemplate two weeks in Italy when he's so emotionally connected to his team in Buffalo.

The Sabres are the perfect reflection of Drury as a tough, selfless leader. It's his team. How can the young kids shy away from the dirty work when they see their captain sticking his face in front of opposing slap shots, grinding away in the corners, working tirelessly to kill penalties, winning all those key faceoffs?

When the star doesn't act like a star, when he's devoid of ego and sloth, a team takes on his personality. Now Drury has to leave a team with great chemistry and no stars to play for an Olympic team with stars and no established chemistry.

It takes months, years even, to concoct the chemistry that has made the Sabres the darlings of Buffalo. How can an Olympic team find it overnight?

"Hopefully, we can," Drury said. "We'll have one day of practice."

I think he was joking. It's hard to tell with Drury. He speaks in soft, considered monotones, as if every syllable matters. He is a proud, serious guy who loathes losing. He will enjoy Turin. But he will miss the Sabres, even if it's only two weeks.

"It's been a great ride so far, a special year," Drury said. "I don't really like reminiscing about a season only 50 games into it. But am I going to miss this? Am I going to miss these guys? Sure I am. But we know we have a ways to go."

Drury said he doesn't need a gold medal to make his life complete. But he's a competitor to his core. Once he arrives in Italy, the fires will start to burn. He knows the Americans aren't expected to do well. They're an underdog, and he kind of likes it that way.

"Yeah, it seemed to work out all right for us here in Buffalo," he said. "Nobody thought we'd do anything. No one thought Carolina was going to do too much this year, and look at them. So that's what makes sports great. There's always underdogs fighting to get things done."

Turin will be a nice experience, a fond interlude. But I suspect it's the Stanley Cup that really motivates Drury, who has a reputation as a great playoff performer. From 1999 to 2002, he played in 80 playoff games, the equivalent of a full season. But it's been almost four years since his last playoff game -- nearly as long as it's been since his last Olympics.

Here in Buffalo, it's been almost five years since the last Stanley Cup playoff game. Drury is well aware of that. He says Buffalo is his home. It seems to fit right. He hasn't even left for Turin, and he seems eager to get back here, back with his real team, for the playoff push.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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