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The Buffalo Sabres Tuesday night played better than they did this past weekend . . . a lot better, in fact.

You'd just never know it by the results.

In spite of a good effort, the Sabres dropped a 3-2 decision to the Pittsburgh Penguins before 15,583 at Memorial Auditorium. The loss was Buffalo's third straight, and it dropped them to the .500 mark at 11-11-5.

An outstanding individual effort by Kevin Stevens was the deciding factor in the game. With the score tied at 2, the Penguins' winger was sent in alone by a pass from Jaromir Jagr, but had to contend with defenseman Craig Muni trying to grab him from behind as well as a bouncing puck.

"Everything was perfect for us (to stop him)," said Buffalo goalie Robb Stauber. "It was so far in front of him, he couldn't do anything else but bring it to his strong side."

Stauber went out to try to prevent that option, just as Stevens regained control of the puck. He managed to avoid Stauber and Muni while cutting to his left, and flipped the puck into the open net with 8:33 remaining in the game.

"He made a great play. Unfortunately, at this time you have to say, give the guy credit," Stauber said.

The Sabres should be credited with working hard to ensure that they would not repeat their performances against Ottawa and Tampa Bay over the weekend. They arrived for the game in ill humor, even getting into a brief group shouting match with the Penguins during pregame warm-ups.

Pittsburgh coach Eddie Johnston knew this game had danger signs written all around for his team.

"They were mad, and they played hard. I don't think they'll lose too many games playing like that," he said. "Everyone in our room knew what was coming. When you lose two games the way they lost them, you know there would be some stuff flying in the dressing room."

For most of the game, the Sabres played the Penguins on even terms. Buffalo's two goals came on aggressive attacks at the net.

Wayne Presley registered his ninth of the season by picking up a loose puck and driving across the slot. Pat LaFontaine notched his second by working a give-and-go play with Craig Simpson.

"We felt like we had to get the puck to the net," Presley said. "I feel we did a pretty good job of it. We got a lot of rebound chances."

But a few mistakes ended Buffalo's chances of beating the Penguins, who moved into first place in the overall standing.

"We played well, but we made some errors you just can't do against a team like Pittsburgh," Buffalo coach John Muckler said.

Two of those errors were in leaving Luc Robitaille open around the net in the second period, and both times the winger beat Stauber for goals.

"He's a goal-scorer, his record doesn't lie," Johnston said. "Year in and year out, he's productive. I moved him around a little bit tonight, and he responded."

Otherwise, Stauber had his best game out of the four he's played since replacing the injured Dominik Hasek last Thursday.

"I'm starting to feel pretty good back there," he said. "I haven't played this many games in a row in a long time, but I felt at home tonight. That's a positive thing for me. That's what I have to build on. That's basically all I can worry about."

The Sabres still have plenty to worry about despite the noticeable improvement in their play Tuesday. They host the pesky Florida Panthers on Friday, followed by a trip to Philadelphia on Sunday and a game with Quebec next Tuesday.

Defenseman Charlie Huddy doesn't believe in moral victories, but he says his team has to take something positive out of Tuesday's game.

"We knew that we had to come out and play hard, and I think we did," he said. "We did a lot of things we hadn't done in the past three or four games. We helped each other out. We had two men on the puck when we had to. We won the little battles. We've got to keep battling and continue from there."

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