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PLAYERS MOVE TO THE FORE FOR SABRES HOME OPENER

There's been a wee bit of -- how do we want to put this -- distraction for the Buffalo Sabres this summer and early season.

Which is exactly why the players are looking forward to tonight's home opener in Marine Midland Arena (7:05, Empire; Radio 104.1 FM).

"I think maybe some people might have forgotten that we accomplished a few things last season and we're proud of what we've done," said winger Rob Ray after a workout in preparation to face the Dallas Stars. "It will be nice to step out there tonight and see that banner go up. It might take some of the talk away from all the other things that have been happening around here."

The banner recognizes the Sabres as Northeast Division champions, and it will be raised as part of a brief ceremony before the game. Several players acknowledged Monday that they're looking forward to that moment and to getting the season off on the right foot at home.

A Sabres spokesman said that as of Monday afternoon, there were about 3,500 tickets remaining. Tickets are said to have moved briskly in the past week, helped along by a $4 discount that is available through all Fantastix locations and at the Sabres box office in Marine Midland Arena. Tickets for this and the next six home games are also being sold in Canada, with the outlets accepting the Canadian dollar at par. That's a discount that can be as high as 35 percent for Western New Yorkers willing to cross-border shop.

"It will be nice," said Ray, the team's senior member for opening festivities along with Donald Audette. "Most of the guys responsible for last year are still in the room here and there's a certain amount of pride involved. We did accomplish some good things last season and you like to try and remember that. Seems like all summer people just talked about the things that went on off the ice around here and there really wasn't much talk about what we did."

That's likely to continue a while longer, given that two players who made major contributions to last season's success -- center Michael Peca and defenseman Alexei Zhitnik -- remain unsigned. But for the players who are here, the home opener is being looked upon as a special night.

It represents a chance to beat a quality opponent and to reestablish with their fans a rapport that was damaged during the offseason.

"For sure you want to play well in your first game at home," said Audette. "We didn't do that last year (a 6-1 thumping at the hands of another Central Division team, the Detroit Red Wings) so we haven't really won one here yet."

"I suppose it won't have some of the same sense of anticipation and excitement given that it was a new building and all last time, but it's still a pretty exciting time," Ray said. "It's a chance to show the fans that we're back and we're still a competitive team."

New coach Lindy Ruff said he's anticipating the excitement of a home opener, but not in the same way as he did the season opener last week in St. Louis.

"There were a lot of butterflies for that one," he said. "It's your first game (as a head coach) and you're wondering about that first win.

"I was pretty nervous. Tonight I think I'll be more concerned with just trying to win the game."

The ceremony is expected to be low-key. There will be individual player introductions and then the hoisting of the banner, the first in 16 seasons for the Sabres. A team spokesman said the banner will be raised and not just unfurled from the rafters but would not say who would do it. That is an issue considering neither general manager John Muckler nor coach Ted Nolan is still with the team.

All that is of no concern to the Stars because the defending Central Division champs are still looking for their first victory. They tied the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday and lost their home opener to the St. Louis Blues, 2-1, on Saturday.

It's obvious the NHL had an eye for the dramatic in scheduling this game for Buffalo's debut performance, but the best laid plans have gone awry. The Stars are led by Ken Hitchcock, who finished second to Nolan in the closest coach-of-the-year balloting ever. The matchup between the two would obviously have had some additional luster had Nolan been rehired.

The Stars also have winger Jere Lehtinen in their lineup. Lehtinen finished as one of two runners-up to Michael Peca in the Selke Trophy balloting for the league's best defensive forward last season, but their matchup has also been delayed with Peca unsigned.

The Stars are likely to start goalie Ed Belfour. A two-time Vezina (best goalie) and three-time Jennings Trophy winner (lowest goals-against total), Belfour signed a free-agent contract with the Stars after nine years in Chicago and a brief stint in San Jose last season. He replaces veteran Andy Moog, who's returned to the Northeast Division with Montreal.

After a slow start (they lost their first two at home by a wide margin) last season, the Sabres put together one of the better home records in the league (24-11-6). They realize it might be tougher this time around, but they don't intend to back away from the challenge.

"For sure, it will be tougher," Ray said. "Last year we took a lot of teams off guard and maybe they weren't prepared, but now every team knows who we are and what we accomplished last year and it's not likely we're going to catch any teams off guard. We've had three tough games already and we haven't even played a division game yet."

That's the way it goes when teams peg you as a team to beat in the NHL. Having a division banner in the rafters just makes it easier to get their attention.

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