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NOW SABRES MUST CONTEND WITH LEMIEUX TEAM SEEKS TO AVERT RECORD LOSS AGAINST PENGUINS, SUPER MARIO

Suddenly, the Sabres don't feel so safe and secure in their own home anymore.

The five-game losing streak is rattling around in the attic. To make matters worse, Mario Lemieux is making his way toward the Auditorium, like some brazen daytime house burglar.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are in town for a 2 p.m. game today (cable TV, Radio 930), and the Sabres are faced with a single, unenviable task: To stop the red-hot Lemieux from turning Super Bowl Sunday into Super Mario Sunday. And you thought the Broncos had their work cut out for them.

Lemieux has been virtually unstoppable over the past three months. With his two assists in Saturday's 9-3 loss to the Islanders, he increased his consecutive point-scoring streak to 38 games, the third-longest such streak in NHL history. A point today would tie him with Wayne Gretzky for the second-longest streak at 39 games (Gretzky also holds the record -- 51).

The Sabres, who haven't won at home in more than a month, would like nothing better than to see both streaks put to a halt in Lemieux's only Buffalo appearance of the season.

"That would be nice," said rookie winger Dave Snuggerud, who helped hold Lemieux without a point in Buffalo's 4-2 win in Pittsburgh early in the season. "Of course, you think about the string he's on. It would be nice to break it. But it's tough to keep a player like that off the board. You just try to limit his chances. I'm new to the league, and only had to cover him one time. You have to give him his space, and yet you've also got to be on top of him."

"But the most important thing," said Jeff Parker, another of the Sabres' top checkers, "is to get the victory. Mario is an offensive player and can win games for Pittsburgh, but whether his streak ends or not, the bottom line is whether we get a win."

A loss today would be the Sabres' record sixth straight at home. Obviously, that's the streak that concerns them most. They don't care if Lemieux scores five points today, as long as they get their house back in order with a win.

Still, they can't help but be a little worried about the Penguins. Lemieux is on the top of his game. Pittsburgh, under new coach/general manager Craig Patrick, is 8-4-1 in its last 13 games and making a move in the muddled Patrick Division.

"It's scary to think (Lemieux) has got a little bit of confidence now," said Buffalo's Kevin Maguire. "It looks like he wants to be the scoring champion again. We've got the play him the way we did at the beginning of the year, make sure we're on him all the time when he gets the puck, give him a bump. I think he got more frustrated than anything (in the October loss), because he's not used to playing against guys who hit him all the time."

Lemieux, of course, is not the easiest player to hit. He tends to drift through the action for long stretches when he's on the ice. Then, just when he seems to have disappeared, he gathers in the puck with his long reach and swoops in on the goaltender.

"You can't let him get lost on the ice," said defenseman Uwe Krupp. "That's what makes him so good. He kind of cruises, then all of a sudden he's right there making a good play. He's not somebody who likes to dig the puck out of the corners. He's similar to (Wayne) Gretzky in that he's most dangerous coming through the neutral zone on a three-on-two or a two-on-one. It seems he's always scoring at the end of a shift."

It has been exactly three months since Lemieux was held pointless in Montreal on Oct. 28. And with his two points Saturday, he regained the overall scoring lead from Gretzky, 99-98. He is slightly behind his pace of a year ago, when he led the league with 199 points, but if he keeps it up, he still might have a shot at 200 points.

So how do the Sabres stop him? The consensus seems to be that they have to bump him early and often, to deny him his customary spaces on the ice. Snuggerud said maybe it would be a better idea to lay off Lemieux early, to give him a false sense of security.

"You have to respect a superstar like that," Snuggerud said. "Maybe if you give him the respect, he'll start to relax. But I guess there's no real key, because if there was, then a lot more people would be shutting him down."

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