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Opponents may try roughing it

TORONTO -- As opponents continue to explore ways to beat the Buffalo Sabres in the second half of the season, don't be surprised if their toughness gets tested more and more.

While the Sabres have garnered high respect for their collection of skill players, some teams have been emboldened by a more physical approach.

"A team like Buffalo that's got so many small, skilled players, the only way to stop them is to start hitting them," Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Wade Belak said before Saturday night's game in the Air Canada Centre.

"They have a lot of guys that's not a part of their game to be bangers. They got more goal scorers and danglers."

The Sabres possess some gritty players, too, forwards Paul Gaustad and Adam Mair chief among them. But as the season moves toward the homestretch, observers might increasingly note the offseason losses of winger Mike Grier and defenseman Jay McKee.

"They're not a banging team," Leafs winger Jeff O'Neill said. "When their skill guys go in the corner they've got to be punished to make them think twice about going in there again. The more we can do that, the more it is to our advantage."

The Sabres were criticized on local talk shows and fan message boards such as www.SabreFans.com for not being more physical in Friday night's 4-2 home loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Mair suggested the rewards of discipline sometimes win out over the satisfaction of retribution, although he was quick to engage Toronto's Ben Ondrus in a fight early in the second period of Buffalo's 4-3 victory. It was one of several skirmishes in a chippy game that included a short shoving match between goaltender Martin Biron and Leafs captain Mats Sundin.

"As a whole, we do [stick up for ourselves], but the game's changed," Mair said. "You never know what the referees are going to call. . . . If they make a big hit, you want to go out and answer that with a hit or maybe a fight. But it is a fine line. Guys have their edges, and I don't think, for the most part, we allow anybody to push us around."

Belak said a bullying opponent might be difficult for a team of playmakers to deal with on a regular basis.

"When you're playing a team that's not willing to respond as far as the physical part and you're all over them and dominating them," Belak said, "you're going to win 95 percent of the games.

"You can't play river hockey out there with 20 guys that aren't going to hit and try to play at the end of their sticks and just try to poke pucks out. It's not going to work every night. If you face a good, physical team that's willing to hit you, you're not going to win as many games."

Of course, a roughneck can't hit what he can't catch.

Mair predicted opponents would remain aggressive against the Sabres. He claimed the Sabres have enough toughness, specifically mentioning defensemen Toni Lydman and Jaroslav Spacek and strong wingers Thomas Vanek and Ales Kotalik, to rebuff brutish overtures.

"We're going to continually see that throughout the rest of the season and the playoffs," Mair said. "Maybe having to play a little out of character, whether it's to finish hits or answer when we're getting hit -- I've seen it this year. I wouldn't describe our team as being unable to do it, but in the same sense, teams will try to do what they can to win games."

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Biron doesn't mind playing in plain. He has worn a white mask virtually all season because the one he had done up in blue-and-gold early in training camp didn't fit properly.

The white mask was Biron's standby, and he doesn't have another. Manufacturer Itech, his brand since he was a teen, is sending him a few to test. If he finds another mask that's comfortable, he'll have it decorated. The painting process can take several weeks.

"The thing is, I don't really care," Biron said. "I don't see the paint job. I'm in the mask. It feels good. I told [Itech] that I want to have another mask so I can get a spare, and I might as well get it painted if it fits."

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Friday night signaled the halfway point of the season for the Sabres, who had the most successful first 41 games in franchise history with 29 wins and 61 points.

Their previous highs were 27 wins in 1979-80 and 57 points in 1974-75 and 1979-80.

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The Sabres returned winger Drew Stafford to the Rochester Americans.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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