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No missing the point Kotalik, Stafford net shootout goals Buffalo reverses last year's trend in opener, picking up shootout victory

Don't try telling the Buffalo Sabres it's only one game of 82. This meant more, especially with how they won it.

The Sabres opened the season Friday with a 2-1 shootout victory over Montreal, exorcising past demons to delight themselves and a sellout crowd in HSBC Arena.

"You can say it's just one game or whatever, but this is huge for the boys," smiling right wing Drew Stafford said. "It's a huge boost for us, especially against a team like that."

The Sabres spent their long offseason kicking themselves over points that slipped away last year. They missed the playoffs by just four points, and a slow start and shootout futility were primary culprits. They dug an early hole by losing their opening two games and five of their first eight. And whenever they'd start feeling good about themselves, they'd get smacked by a shootout loss. They dropped nine of their first 11 and finished just 4-9.

So of course this season would begin with a shootout. To get the one thing they wanted (a fast start), they'd have to succeed at what ailed them.

They succeeded perfectly. Ales Kotalik and Stafford beat Carey Price with backhands, while Sabres goalie Ryan Miller stoned Robert Lang and forced Saku Koivu to lose the puck.

"It was so hard for us last season with how many points we lost in the shootout," Kotalik said. "If we'd won half of them we could easily be in the playoffs last season. So today, today is a big win.

"Hopefully, that's going to jump-start us to winning games and keep being confident in the shootouts."

The Sabres learned their lesson last season. Coach Lindy Ruff began doing extra breakaway sessions during practice toward the middle of the year, and that continued throughout training camp. The practice paid off.

"I'm guessing there's going to be a few more, so we just have to stay on top of it," Miller said. "It has to be your focus because separation between playoffs and missing is thin. It was a conscious effort throughout the team.

"It shows we're learning from last year. Two points early in the season might have made the difference at the end. To get that extra point here is going to be important."

The 18,690 who filled the arena were treated to an entertaining but low-scoring game. When it finished, they unleashed a roar that had been bottled since March, when the Sabres last played at the foot of Washington Street.

"It felt good to hear the crowd erupt when we scored and know that I could do my job and give my support," Miller said.

The Sabres have had success with lamp-lighting affairs, but Ruff wanted to see his team prepared to succeed in 2-1 games. It did.

"The most important thing is we bought into the system," right wing Jason Pominville said. "We played well defensively. They had to work for their opportunities. We didn't hand them any chances."

The Sabres squandered a few of their own, however. The game was tied at 1-1 midway through the third period when Buffalo earned a four-minute power play. But their big shot resulted in just one shot. The man-advantage unit was given another chance with 4:40 left in regulation, but Price turned aside both shots he faced as part of a 35-save performance.

The Sabres went 0 for 6 on the power play. But they salvaged the night by going 4 for 4 on the penalty kill against last season's top unit.

"We were ready for them," Ruff said. "We knew what they were going to bring."

Montreal did bring the first goal. Lang scored just 2:58 into the game, just as Canadiens fans started their first "Go, Habs, Go" chant.

The Sabres' best goal-scorer struck back five minutes later. Thomas Vanek, who led the team in goals the past two seasons, recovered Mike Komisarek's miscue and streaked into the Montreal zone. He stopped, waited for Andrei Markov to slide past, then cut to the front and slipped a shot through Price's pads.

Neither goalie was beaten again until the Sabres aced their shootout test.

"It's fun to win," Stafford said. "It's as simple as that."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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