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Sabres anxious for new beginning

The scene's been the same in the Buffalo Sabres' dressing room for the past few weeks. A player who is sweating off six months of hockey-less nights opens his mouth and talks of how the only destination is the playoffs. Last year's road detoured too early, and the drive back to the postseason is coming.

Finally, the start of the 82-game journey is here.

The Sabres begin "Redemption Tour 2008-09" when the Montreal Canadiens visit HSBC Arena at 7:30 tonight. It's the Sabres' first home game since March, and it's their first meaningful contest since the Canadiens eliminated them from postseason contention April 3.

"A packed house in here, and all the guys are ready," center Derek Roy said Thursday. "People are anxious to get the season going. It's been a long summer, a long summer for everybody. Everybody's ready to get started and get off on the right foot."

Starting fast and reaching the playoffs have been on the lips of people throughout the organization since they arrived for training camp. New captain Craig Rivet wants the bar set higher.

"We have a team that can do great things this year," Rivet said. "Everybody wants to make the playoffs, but this is a team that wants to make the playoffs and we want to win a Stanley Cup. That's the focus."

They find out immediately how much work they have to do to hoist Lord Stanley. Prognosticators from Manitoba to Miami and Maine to Malibu have said Montreal is destined for great things this season.

"We're getting the team that everybody seems to be picking to win our division," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "It's a team that did a great job last year, had a good playoff. Their special teams, especially their power play, was excellent, so it's a great test for us. We're going up against one of the best right off the bat."

Buffalo will need to be focused from the puck drop against the Canadiens, who were the Eastern Conference's top squad last season. A potent roster, topped by goaltender Carey Price, remains.

"It's going to be great to see where we stand against the best, and I think that we're right there," Rivet said.

Opening against a Northeast Division rival can do more than show the Sabres where they measure up. It can show the opponent the season will be tightly contested. The Sabres held the honor of Best in the East the previous year, so they know a team's status as king can easily be overthrown.

"We know we play them six times," Roy said. "We have to set the tone and be ready for them, give us a little confidence going forward."

The Sabres want to look toward the new year and would rather not look back at last season. But a little peek might help. The Habs beat Buffalo in the final three meetings, denting and finally flattening their postseason dreams.

To turn it around, the Sabres will need better special teams. Montreal's power play, which was best in the league, went bonkers against Buffalo. It succeeded an astounding 28.6 percent of the time, scoring eight goals on 28 chances.

"Our discipline will be important," Ruff said. "We can kill off some, but we can't kill off a whole bunch of them."

The Sabres' fate won't be decided by the opening game, although some feel last season's destiny was determined after the opening two. They had back-to-back, sloppy losses against the New York Islanders, a nonplayoff team. The Sabres start this season with five games in nine nights, so they can't waste time finding their footing.

They're ready to dig in against Montreal.

"We want to get a good start," defenseman Toni Lydman said. "Points are getting harder to get toward the end of the season, and if you start slow it's tough to make up for it at the end."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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