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SABRES EAGER TO OPEN NEW CHAPTER

After an offseason filled with turmoil and controversy, the Buffalo Sabres can finally -- and almost mercifully -- get back to the business of fun and games.

When the Sabres open their 28th season here tonight against the St. Louis Blues, it will be the first time in almost five months they have played a game that matters.

"It started to hit me yesterday," said Lindy Ruff, who makes his NHL head coaching debut tonight. "You can see the excitement in the players' eyes.

"I think there's an excitement in the coaching staff and everyone else, too."

The Sabres would like to put the offseason's firings, hirings, contract disputes and trades behind them. Yet even on the day before the start of the regular season, the Sabres had several personnel issues to contend with.

The most significant development was that winger Miroslav Satan signed a one-year contract on Tuesday, and accompanied the team on its flight to St. Louis.

However, goalie Andrei Trefilov was not on the trip. Ruff announced after Tuesday's practice that Steve Shields had won the backup goalie's spot. Ruff and general manager Darcy Regier met with Trefilov Tuesday, and the team placed the veteran on waivers.

"Steve Shields outplayed Trefilov in goal in preseason," Ruff said. "I think he deserves that spot. They were given an equal share at playing."

If Trefilov is not claimed by another NHL team, he probably will be released or sent to a minor-league team.

The Tuesday workout was the team's first since the trade of Pat LaFontaine to the New York Rangers. Three players -- Donald Audette, Randy Burridge and Derek Plante -- wore black armbands in practice to mark the occasion.

"That's in memory of Patty," Burridge said. "A lot of guys played many years with him. I've played a couple of years with him. He'll be a loss in the dressing room. Unfortunately things like this happen in this business, and I'm sure he's moving on to good things."

Audette, who came up with the idea of the armbands, may miss LaFontaine more than any other Sabre, on and off the ice.

"You can't replace a guy like Patty," the right winger said. "Brian (Holzinger, his new center) is a great player, and we've got a great bunch of guys here. But Patty is Patty. I don't think you replace a guy like that the next day. It's going to take time.

"It was great to play with that guy. I played with Dale (Hawerchuk) and Patty, two of the top centermen in the history of the league. When we're on the ice we had a lot of fun, and when we were off the ice we had a lot of fun, too. I'm probably going to miss him more as a friend."

LaFontaine's status had been hanging over the team since he announced shortly before the start of training camp that he planned to return to action after missing most of last season with concussion-related injuries. In one sense, LaFontaine's trade allows the team at least to put the issue behind it.

"We are paid professional athletes, and we have to do the best job we can at that time," Matthew Barnaby said. "Patty is a great guy, and he's always going to be a good friend -- I wish the best for him. But for us, it is a sense of closure. We've put it behind us, and now we're worrying about winning hockey games."

The Sabres won 40 of those games last season, good enough to earn the Northeast Division title. Tonight they begin their attempt at repeating that accomplishment.

"I think it's an extremely difficult task," Ruff said. "I think the players are up to it. They want to prove that last year was no fluke, and they'd like to be a better team. The attitude is really good in the dressing room. They've put a lot behind them, and they are ready to just play hockey."

"I don't think you're going to see the same type of year," Audette added. "Hopefully you're going to have a better year. . . . This year people are expecting us to win. Last year, making the playoffs surprised a lot of people. It's more pressure from the media and the people, who expect more, but that's the name of the game."

As for who will replace LaFontaine as captain, Ruff said that decision will not be made immediately. He plans to use three assistant captains for the time being.

Michael Peca frequently has been mentioned as a candidate to replace LaFontaine, and the Sabres may be waiting for Peca's status to be resolved. He and Alexei Zhitnik remain unsigned free agents.

Meanwhile, Brad May -- who suffered a slight shoulder injury on Saturday -- has been cleared for play.

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