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'BUBBLE' SABRES HAVE THREE GAMES LEFT

Defenseman Garry Galley is the only significant player missing from the Buffalo team that captured the Northeast Division title in the National Hockey League last season.

That doesn't mean, however, that the stand-pat Sabres are lacking a few interesting newcomers to put on display in their two Marine Midland Arena exhibition games in the next three nights.

Tonight the Sabres (0-3-2) face the Toronto Maple Leafs (2-3-1) in their home debut. After a Friday night game in Ottawa against the Senators, they return Saturday night to the arena to close the preseason against the Carolina Hurricanes.

The newest Sabre -- defenseman Jason Woolley -- may make his Buffalo debut tonight. Woolley was obtained Wednesday from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for a fifth-round draft choice in 1998. Woolley, 28, is expected to help quarterback the power-play from the point and add some experience to the blue line.

Another new face of interest is Eric Rasmussen, Buffalo's No. 1 draft pick in 1996. The seventh player selected overall, Rasmussen was the Sabres' earliest pick since they made Pierre Turgeon the No. 1 pick overall in 1987.

Rasmussen has one assist in three games, but he has made a positive impression on coach Lindy Ruff.

"He's shown ability to make some plays in tight situations and he's showed some good composure," Ruff said. "There have been flashes of the bull in the china shop where he's had guys wrapped around him and he's come through with power."

If Rasmussen doesn't stick he would be assigned to Rochester.

Defenseman Cory Sarich, the No. 2 pick in 1996, is another who has been impressive.

"For a young defenseman he has shown great composure on the ice," Ruff said.

Sarich, 19, is eligible to return to his junior team, Saskatoon of the Western Hockey League. The Sabres must decide whether he would be better off developing there or being pushed to the NHL level this early in his career.

Ruff knew little about Vaclav Varada until this training camp, but the 21-year-old Czech-born left wing has notched a pair of goals in the preseason.

"He's gotten progressively better," Ruff said. "He started out very slow but his game has really picked up. He's more of a grinding type of player rather than a skill guy. He has drive and ability to control the puck down low. I thought from the start of camp to now he's vastly improved."

Varada, who had 23 goals and 25 assists at Rochester last year, would appear to have the best chance of the three of starting the season in Buffalo, although Ruff said the final roster is far from set.

"There are still some decisions to be made," he said. "We have 30 players still here. There are some guys we want to see more of and we have three games in three nights. We don't want to play all our veteran players in those three games."

Other 1996-97 Rochester Amerks still in camp with the Sabres are center Scott Nichol, winger Curtis Brown and defensemen Sergei Klimentiev, Shayne Wright and Rumun Ndur.

Ndur is out with a hip injury.

Also hanging in are right wing Patrice Tardif and defenseman Mike Hurlbut, who were signed as free agents during the summer.

"They're right on the bubble," Ruff said. "I hate to use that expression, but that's where a lot of those players are.

"Tardif has had chances to score goals. He had a chance to win it for us in Huntsville, Ala. He had an open net and he missed. That's the type of stuff that puts you on one side of the bubble or the other."

Hurlbut, 31, is a seasoned minor league defenseman whom Ruff remembers from his training camps with the New York Rangers.

"He doesn't strike you as 31 or 32 years old. You would think he's 24-25," Ruff said. "He's just an all-around defenseman. He can join the rush, he sees the play well and he tries to play physical most of the time. He's a guy you can use in almost any situation. You can use him to penalty kill. You can use him a little on the power play. He's experienced in all that."

Dominik Hasek figures to get the start in goal tonight after not dressing for the 3-2 loss to the Leafs in Toronto on Tuesday. Andrei Trefilov and Steve Shields split the goaltending in that loss.

"If I can play one or two more games, I would feel more comfortable," said Hasek, who reported that the knee he injured in the playoffs last season feels better than it did 2-3 weeks ago.

"Dom needs to play two of the next three just to get his game on course," Ruff said. "That would be my plan. I'm going to talk to him. He's played pretty well but if he said he would need all three, he might get all three. I don't believe he wants to play three back to back to back."

Woolley, 6 feet and 188 pounds, is a Toronto native. He played college hockey at Michigan State and was a member of the 1992 Canadian Olympic team. He made his NHL debut with the Washington Capitals in 1992 but his first full season in the league was with the 1995-96 Florida Panthers, who reached the Stanley Cup finals. Woolley had six goals ans 28 assists in 52 games.

Last season he was 6-30-36 in 60 games with Pittsburgh, including two power-play goals.

"He's known as a power-play point man," Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said in announcing the trade. "He's a bit of a specialist, but very capable of playing good sound defense."

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