New coach, new general manager, new lineup . . . same old Buffalo Sabres.
Copying a page from last year's script, which produced a Northeast Division title, the Sabres used a balanced offensive attack and 33 saves from Dominik Hasek to defeat the St. Louis Blues, 3-1, on Wednesday night.
Miroslav Satan had a goal and an assist, and Jason Dawe and Dixon Ward the other goals for Buffalo, which jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the first two periods. The Sabres sat back a little too much in the third period -- something last season's team did a lot, too -- giving up the first eight shots. The margin was 11-2 for the period, 34-19 for the game.
However, Hasek was solid when he had to be, stopping Harry York and Brett Hull on breakaways in the third period. It was a worthy start to his defense of the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player.
"I liked the first two periods," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, who finally enjoyed his first win as an NHL head coach after an 0-6-2 preseason.
"We got behind the 8-ball a bit with penalties while we were five on five, but we controlled play," Ruff said. "In the last period we really needed Dominik. He played extremely well. I guess that's a given. I thought our young defense played well in front of him."
The Sabres flew to Maryland following the game. They will play the Capitals there on Friday night.
They are no doubt happy to focus on hockey again after a tumultuous offseason.
"The only thing we wanted to make a statement about was that we had a good year last year and that it wasn't a fluke," Ward said. "It's hard to come back and repeat, but I think we've learned over the last few months that it doesn't help to worry about things off the ice."
Jay McKee agreed.
"We're almost to the point where we're sick of the stuff being brought up," he said. "As they say, it's a new season, a new attitude. We're ready to put it all behind us."
The Blues, playing before 15,893 in the Kiel Center, carried the play in the opening moments, due in part to a tripping penalty by Donald Audette only 14 seconds into the game. St. Louis just missed connecting on some passes that would have led to great scoring opportunities, and the Sabres killed off the power play.
Buffalo struck first at 5:07, receiving a kind bounce along the way. McKee's pass from the neutral zone caromed off the skate of Al MacInnis and down the ice, where Dawe was in position to pick up the loose puck. Dawe's shot from the middle of the face-off circle floated like a knuckleball. It beat St. Louis' Grant Fuhr high to the short side.
Neither team did much for the next 10 minutes or so. But the period's complexion changed when Kelly Chase was in the penalty box for St. Louis. Audette rammed into Chris Pronger of the Blues behind the St. Louis net. The winger was given a major penalty for boarding and a game misconduct. Audette did not have either a major or a misconduct in all of last season.
A few minutes later, Bob Boughner earned a two-minute minor for cross-checking, giving the Blues a full power play with a two-man advantage. Buffalo did a good job of killing it for a while, but St. Louis tied the score at 18:48. MacInnis launched a characteristically hard shot from about 40 feet out. It bounced between Hasek's pads and dribbled into the net. The shot was one of 15 the Blues would take in the period, as compared to the Sabres' seven.
The Sabres started the second period like the first, killing off a St. Louis power play. Buffalo took the lead a few minutes later.
Brian Holzinger zipped down right wing, and with no other plausible option simply threw the puck into the crowd around the front of the crease. A bounce later it wound up on the stick of Satan, who beat Fuhr from close range. The goal came at 4:45 and Darryl Shannon was also credited with an assist.
The Sabres had a big chance to break the game open only 14 seconds later. Pronger was called for tripping and Tony Twist earned an unsportsmanlike conduct call, giving Buffalo a five-on-three advantage for two full minutes. The Sabres moved the puck well during part of that time; the use of Jason Woolley and Holzinger on the points was particularly effective. However, Buffalo couldn't score.
The Sabres gained a two-goal lead at even strength, scoring at 8:45. Satan did most of the hard work, coming down the right wing and sweeping around the St. Louis goal. His pass went to a waiting Ward, who was standing on the doorstep. The winger tapped in the puck in one of the easiest scores he'll have all season. Mike Wilson had the other assist.
Neither side had many great opportunities for the rest of the period. Buffalo's best one came on a power play, when McKee's 30-footer was gloved by Fuhr.
The Blues had won their previous six home openers. St. Louis hasn't had much of a home-ice advantage at the three-year-old Kiel Center, finishing below .500 the last two seasons.
In the offseason the Blues reduced ticket prices and replaced previously dark pink seat backs with blue ones in an effort to create more of a hockey atmosphere. But with the team and Hull at an apparent impasse on contract talks, the opener drew a crowd about 4,000 short of capacity.