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For the first time in history, the Buffalo Sabres will be taking a nice, long vacation in the middle of the schedule next season.

Buffalo will play in Montreal on Feb. 7, and then be off until Feb. 25 for a home game with the Toronto Maple Leafs -- with 18 days between starts. The reason is that the entire National Hockey League will shut down for more than two weeks while its best players head off to Nagano, Japan, for the 1998 Winter Olympics. It will mark the first time that NHL players will take part in the Olympics.

The league hopes that the international competition will give the sport tremendous exposure throughout the world, as the 1992 American basketball team ("The Dream Team") sold the NBA on an international basis. But in order to have that 18-day gap, the league had to start its schedule earlier and finish it later.

The Sabres, who released their 1997-98 schedule on Wednesday, will have their earliest opening game ever -- Oct. 1 in St. Louis. The team will travel to Washington on Oct. 3 and Tampa Bay on Oct. 5 before opening at home on Oct. 7 against the Dallas Stars. The end of the schedule will be on April 19 against the Ottawa Senators.

Besides the missing February dates, the other big change in the schedule from the Sabres standpoint is that Monday through Thursday games generally will begin at 7:05 p.m. That's a half-hour earlier than in previous years. Most Friday and Saturday games will start at 7:35 p.m., while Sunday games will stay at 7:05 p.m.

Buffalo has four matinee (3:05 p.m.) dates on its schedule: Nov. 22 vs N.Y. Islanders, Mar. 15 vs. Pittsburgh, Mar. 21 vs. Boston, and Apr. 5 vs. Ottawa. In addition, the game on Nov. 10 -- Veterans' Day -- against Edmonton will begin at 5:05 p.m.

The Sabres have a tough beginning to the schedule, playing 10 of their first 14 games on the road. However, the team closes with 7 of 10 at home.

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