Michal Grosek and Curtis Brown had not made much of a dent offensively in the Buffalo Sabres' preseason until Thursday night, when they gave coach Lindy Ruff something to think about.
Grosek and Brown notched the Buffalo goals in a 3-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs before a slim crowd of 6,527 -- many of them rooting for the Leafs -- at Marine Midland Arena. They skated on a line centered by Erik Rasmussen, who had two assists in his Buffalo debut.
Derek King got the game-winner with 7:33 left in the third for the Leafs (3-3-1) after Mike Johnson had tied it by lifting the puck over goalie Dominik Hasek at 10:20. Veteran Wendel Clark had the other Toronto goal.
Hasek handled all the Buffalo goaltending, stopping 34 shots. Felix Potvin had 30 saves for the Leafs.
It was the fourth one-goal loss in a row for the Sabres (0-4-2) and the last three have been by the identical 3-2 score.
Although the Sabres failed again to put a dent in the win column, it was far from a dismal effort. Ruff was generally pleased with the way his team handled itself in the defensive zone except in the third period. "In the third period, we got running around a little bit in our end," he said.
Buffalo was outshot, 37-32, but that was largely because of the difference in power plays. The Sabres were 0 for 4 while Toronto was 1 for 6.
Brown took a drop pass from Rasmussen and beat Potvin with a fluttering backhander from the slot with just 13.4 seconds left in the first period. Grosek found himself looking at an open net early in the third when Potvin stopped a hard drive by Rasmussen. The rebound ricocheted to the other side to Grosek, who was driving to the net.
"This season, I want to drive to the net for rebounds and think more about shooting the puck," said Grosek, who noted that being active and aggressive around the crease pays off for NHL stars such as Keith Tkaczuk and Brendan Shanahan. "They pick up 30 goals just from rebounds," he said.
Brown's goal came at a good time for him because it may get him noticed by Ruff.
Asked about Brown's performance in the preseason, Ruff confessed that he had not formed a true impression yet of the 21-year-old winger who made the jump from junior hockey to the American Hockey League with Rochester last year.
"I haven't really got a real good feel for him," Ruff admitted. "I think he's the kind of guy you don't notice a lot but he'll find a way to put the puck in the net."
Ruff liked the Grosek-Rasmussen-Brown line so much he said he might go with it again tonight against the Senators in Ottawa in the second of a three-games-in-three-nights stint that will close the Buffalo preseason. The Sabres face Carolina at home Saturday night then open the NHL regular season in St. Louis next Wednesday.
"We got a pretty good showing out of that line," Ruff said. "You're kind of looking for combinations that are going to fit."
Oddly enough, Brown pointed out that the three had not skated together much in camp.
"We just went out and worked hard and luckily got a couple of bounces and the puck went in for us, but it still wasn't enough," he said.
Brown scored 22 goals and had 21 assists in 51 games for Rochester last season after starting the season in Buffalo. "It was a great experience for me to get ice time and play a lot," he said of the demotion. "As a young guy, if you can learn every day, you can improve and that's what I'm going to do."
Ruff's other line combinations Thursday found Brian Holzinger centering for Dixon Ward and Jason Dawe, Wayne Primeau with Brad May and Vaclav Varada, Scott Nicholl with Randy Burridge and Rob Ray on the wings.
Even though he has never practiced with the team, defenseman Jason Woolley played for the Sabres. He was obtained from Pittsburgh Wednesday in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick in 1998. Woolley played the point on the power play and paired with Bob Boughner in even-strength situations.
The Sabres got a less than resounding reaction from the crowd in the wake of all the negative publicity the organization has been receiving.
There were boos, but they weren't sustained, when Hasek was introduced with the starting lineup. Some Sabres fans give him a lot of the blame for the departure of coach Ted Nolan.
Team president Larry Quinn was the object of some displeasure, too. Two young male fans, one in a Michael Peca Sabres sweater and the other in a Pat LaFontaine Sabres sweater, brandished a home-made sign that said "Trade Quinn."
The loudest boos were for the Maple Leafs fans, when they cheered the first Toronto goal.