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For Sabres, the joy ride commences

Tonight's a night unlike any other the Buffalo Sabres will experience this season, the one game out of them all that makes them feel like kids again.

Tonight's the night they get back to playing hockey, for their livelihoods, for your entertainment. Today the tedium of training camp and the trials of the preseason already seem like last year's news.

The palpable buzz surrounding a home opener, particularly when it's a season opener, is impossible to duplicate at any other point in the season. It's different than in the playoffs, which are clothed in layers of suffocating urgency. The playoffs are about finishing what you started. The opener's about starting something you hope leads to a glorious finish.

Game Two of the season doesn't get your innards churning. Game 10 is but another step on the long and arduous road. But the opener?

"Nerve levels increase, adrenaline increases," said the Sabres' new captain, Craig Rivet. "From the last game you play in one season you're thinking of the first game of the next. It takes a long time, a couple months, to get back to the first game and it's the most exciting day of the year."

"Every year it is special," coach Lindy Ruff said. "I can just tell you that [the] last two mornings there you usually get in at 7:30-8 and it's been 6:30-7 because you can't wait to get it started. And it's almost a nervous anxiety, even for coaches. It's like, 'Do we got everything covered? Have we gone through everything we can possibly go through?' And when you've done that you ask that question again. It doesn't change."

Imagine being Patrick Kaleta, the local kid. This is it, the first opener of his NHL career.

"Last year I was hurt and the first year in Rochester I never made it so being up here in Buffalo it's going to be an extra special day," he said. "You've been waiting the whole summer. Especially us, we had a long summer this year and we've been biting at the bit here to get going. Opening night, the fans get fired up, and the same with the players. It's finally getting the season under way."

It's no more special for Rivet that tonight's game against the Montreal Canadiens pits him against the organization that drafted him back in 1992. There's no discerning one opening day from any of the others, he said, no memory that stands out from the pack. They all share a commonality -- the sense of renewal.

"They're all memorable," Rivet said. "I'd have to say that they're all the same. I think every year when you play your first game it means something. It means that you've made the team. It means that you're a part of an NHL organization and part of a brand new season and it gives you a brand new opportunity to start fresh."

Ruff has a different take. He was a Sabres rookie when Buffalo opened the 1979 season against the Washington Capitals and the recollection is indelible.

"Scored the first game," he boasted. "It was a great goal. I came over the blue line, I got the puck, I walked across the line, shot it into an empty net. Thirty-some seconds left. It bounced over Bengt Gustafsson's stick. Never even got it in the air."

Maybe it's on YouTube, he was told.

"Yeah," Ruff said, "in black and white."

Well, this is it, the last time the Buffalo Sabres will be 0-0 in the regular season until this time next year. By late tonight they're either 1-0 or 0-1, and neither will be cause for wild celebration or grave concern. That's part of the beauty of opening day. It's not whether you win or lose. It's that you're finally on your way.


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