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Sabres give fans reason to smile

For reasons not entirely clear, there was a sense going into the season that people were hesitant to jump on board with the Buffalo Sabres. OK, so they missed the playoffs last season and not much changed over the summer. Granted, don't have an overabundance of talent and they have a new, unfamiliar captain in defenseman Craig Rivet.

The Sabres certainly didn't grab much national attention. Several publications are picking them to finish in the bottom third of the conference, including a few that have them as far down as 13th. My wife even stopped me on the way out the door Friday night and made a personal plea, as if she were bracing for the worst.

"Be nice," she said. "It's the first game of the season."

Well, dear, no reminder necessary. It's not often you'll catch me leading the cheers, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the lovable locals. The Sabres have enough talent and depth to make the playoffs. Remember, they were picked near the bottom coming out of the lockout and reached the Eastern Conference finals.

Nobody is saying they should start planning the parade, but this crew will surprise a few teams if they continue playing the way they did in beating Montreal, 2-1, in a shootout Friday night. Kick back and watch as this young, energetic group evolves in the coming months. If the season opener was an indication, they should be just fine.

For starters, there's been a clear shift in attitude inside their dressing room. Last season, they were disjointed for 40 games before finding themselves. This year, the Sabres believe they can beat anybody. That alone makes them more dangerous than they were a year ago, when their slow start cost them.

Remember, Montreal is supposedly the standard in the Eastern Conference. It made Buffalo look like the St. Francis JV a few times last season. The Canadiens have more talent, more superstars, more experience. But it didn't matter. The Sabres never backed down, were the better team, produced 36 shots and deserved the two points.

Games like the opener are likely to become the norm. The league has become tighter every year since the lockout, and coaches have caught up to rules that are no longer new. Many a contest will be decided by intelligence, defense, hard work and goaltending.

The Sabres had all four working Friday night. Heck, Daniel Paille had the first three in spades. He was the best player on the ice, a resourceful standout amid the Sabres' cohesiveness against a team that many expected to be superior.

Just so you know, all this optimism was generated without thinking twice about Tim Connolly, who has become less dependable than your 401(k). He missed the opener with nagging back problems. No worries. Adam Mair, who struggled to make it through training camp after offseason knee surgery, took Connolly's spot on the third line and made the Sabres more stubborn and infinitely tougher.

And that's what wins these days.

Understand, the Sabres weren't perfect by any stretch. Maxim Afinogenov, who couldn't find the net with a GPS, stuck to his game of fast skating, blown scoring chances and mind-boggling decisions. There were a few breakdowns in the defensive zone. All can be fixed.

Still, they showed promise. Ryan Miller had no chance on the goal he allowed, made a game-saving stop in the final minute of overtime and was perfect in the shootout. Thomas Vanek showed patience and maturity in scoring his first of many goals this season. Rivet provided a steady hand in the defensive zone.

So feel free to climb aboard for an interesting ride. Popular opinion suggests there's plenty of room.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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