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Win can't mask soft underbelly

Things sure have changed in one year. Last season at this time, the Sabres were rolling through the NHL at a record 12-1-1 pace, establishing themselves as the Stanley Cup favorite. On Wednesday night, they beat an average Bruins team in overtime, 2-1, and you'd have thought they won a big game in June.

Defenseman Brian Campbell called it a "huge" win. Coach Lindy Ruff said it was a game his team sorely needed, a significant early season test. Ruff said the outcome might allow some of his tight, struggling players -- Maxim Afinogenov and Thomas Vanek come to mind -- to loosen up and be more productive.

Ruff made it sound as if he's coaching a raw, young squad looking to find its way in the NHL, not a team that won the Presidents' Trophy a year ago. And it's pretty clear they're not the same team this year. They're still a game below .500 and sitting in last place in the Northeast Division, 13 points behind Ottawa.

This victory was no artistic triumph. But it was a lot better than the two home games that preceded it -- ugly losses to Columbus and Florida. The Sabres gutted it out and avoided their first four-game losing streak since March 2006. At this point, any home win is a relief, even against a Boston team that hasn't won a playoff series since 1999.

"It was a gutsy effort by a lot of guys in the room," Campbell said. "We need that. We need to step up more and more. It's not going to be easy, but we're capable of doing it. We need to realize that we have to play gutsy like this. Maybe we have to win 2-1, instead of 6-4. That seems to be the way the league is going."

That was the prevailing theme afterward. Everyone conceded that it's a tougher, more defensive-minded league. The wide-open NHL, which was ideal for a small, speedy Sabres squad, has suddenly been transformed back into a tight-checking sport where unsightly, low-scoring games are the standard.

"Last year, everything we touched turned to gold on offense," said goalie Ryan Miller, who had 25 saves. "This year, we're going to have to work for it the way teams approach us. We have talent. We have the scoring touch. You're just not going to get many good looks and you have to make them count."

There's some truth to what they say, but it's a little too convenient. A skeptic might argue that the loss of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, two of the Sabres' top scorers and leaders, has a lot to do with the precipitous dip in the team's performance.

I know it's taboo to mention Drury and Briere. We're supposed to swallow the notion that the team is just fine without them, that the younger guys were going to assume their offensive production and leadership.

Go ahead and chalk it up to better coaching and looser officiating. But from what I've seen, this team lacks leadership, passion and competitive character. What they could use is someone like Drury to shut the locker room door, throw out the coaches, and tell some of the softer Sabres they're not nearly as good as they think they are.

They won a game Wednesday night. But for long stretches of this season, they've looked like the same soft team that dissolved against Ottawa in the playoffs last spring, a team that wanted things to be easy and wasn't willing to pay the physical price.

Last year, the Sabres would have come out smoking after a listless first period. Wednesday night, they came out in the second period and managed four shots in the first 15 minutes. But remember, this isn't the highlight reel Sabres anymore.

"From what I've seen scouting teams and in our games, there's a lot less chances," Ruff said. "The league is starting to look the same."

What doesn't look nearly the same, of course, is the Sabres.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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