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MUCKLER RESTS EASY DURING WIN EARLY 5-1 LEAD RELIEVES TENSION

Turns out he didn't need him, but there was a psychiatrist handy Tuesday night as Buffalo Sabres coach John Muckler was forced to watch on television at home as his team scored its 5-3 victory over the Quebec Nordiques.

"It was not as emotional as I thought it would be," said Muckler of the experience of being away from his team on game night as he began serving his three-game NHL suspension. "A 5-1 lead might have had something to do with that."

Muckler watched the game with his wife and daughter and his daughter's friend at home in Amherst.

"I had my resident psychiatrist there, too," Muckler said, half joking. Actually, Max Offenberg, the Sabres team psychiatrist, was invited as a dinner guest, not to be on hand in case nervous anxiety got the better of the suspended coach.

Besides the four-goal lead, the largest Buffalo has taken into a third period all season, Muckler was happy with the Sabres' response to adversity.

"I like the way we came right back and got the third goal after they scored," Muckler said.

Muckler admitted to being a little nervous before the game came on his TV at home. Why not? Quebec brought a four-game winning streak and the NHL's best record to the Aud.

Tonight, Muckler must sit by helplessly again as the Ottawa Senators, who have the NHL's worst record, visit the Aud (7:30; Empire; Radio 550, 1330).

"It's a game we should win, but we can't take it lightly," Muckler said. "Our approach has to be: we need this game badly. No way can we let it out of our grasp. We really do need these two points."

Buffalo is seventh overall in the Eastern Conference standing, but only five points better than the 12th place team in the tightly bunched race for the eight playoff spots.

If tonight's game goes to form, Muckler shouldn't be squirming as much as he did Tuesday night when the Nordiques closed within two goals of Buffalo in the third period. "We were pulling back and you could see Quebec come at us," Muckler said.

It was during that part of the game, Muckler said, that the frustration of not being at the scene was worst for him.

"You saw things happening on the ice and you'd like to make a correction, but, of course, you can't do that," he said. "In the third period I had the same feeling that I would have had on the bench, but there's nobody listening to you. The good thing is there's nobody talking back, either."

The last time Muckler was not behind the bench for a Sabres regular-season game was in 1993 when he missed a game at Ottawa at the end of the All-Star break.

Assistant coaches Don Lever and John Tortorella assumed the coaching duties in Muckler's absence. Muckler knows what they are going through because when he was with the Edmonton Oilers he often took the reins when head coach Glen Sather was off on team business.

Muckler said he was pleased how the Sabres rose to the occasion Tuesday. It was, he thought, a combination of their wanting to play well for him, for Lever and Tortorella, and the fact that the opponent was Quebec.

"I think the players showed their respect for everybody. We're all in the same boat and we've got to pull together when things turn bad, " Muckler said.

Muckler didn't have to be at the Aud to notice the continued progress Pat LaFontaine made in only his sixth game back in the lineup after being out of regular-season action since November 1993. LaFontaine scored Buffalo's third goal and assisted on two.

"I thought Pat was strong the first two periods. I thought that line was strong. I think Pat tired a bit in the third," Muckler said.

Muckler said the Sabres are not purposely limiting LaFontaine's ice time.

"How much we use him is based on what we need in the game," Muckler said. "His first game he played 15 minutes. We'd like to play him 25. That's where we'd like to get him."

IceCats cool down Amerks, 3-1

ROCHESTER -- Cal McGowan scored one goal and assisted on another and rookie Chris Gordon made 25 saves as the Worcester IceCats defeated the Rochester Americans, 3-1, in the American Hockey League Wednesday night.

McGowan's short-handed goal put the IceCats ahead, 1-0, in the second period. Mikhail Volkov scored for the Americans.

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