There's nothing like a home opener in Marine Midland Arena to bring out the worst in the Buffalo Sabres.
The Sabres, who were blitzed last year by Detroit in their first-ever regular-season home game in the building, were only a little better Tuesday night. They dropped a 4-2 decision to the Dallas Stars before 15,575, and it could have been much more one-sided.
Buffalo showed little of the determination and spark that it displayed last season, a campaign that was commemorated before the game by the raising of the Northeast Division championship banner.
"I was disappointed. I think emotionally the way they played was the biggest disappointment," coach Lindy Ruff said. "There wasn't a lot of fire, and part of the blame has to rest with me."
It was an odd night in a building that has seen more than its share of them in its 13 months of operation. The first sign came during the pregame introductions, when goalie Dominik Hasek -- the league's most valuable player in 1996-97 -- was loudly booed by a majority of fans in attendance. The treatment wasn't totally unexpected, since the goalie had received similar receptions during two home preseason games.
"I have nothing to say about it. They can say whatever they want," Hasek, who was critical of popular ex-Sabre coach Ted Nolan during the offseason, said in almost matter-of-fact fashion.
Hasek heard some more boos during the first few minutes of the game, but the team in front of him deserved it more. It took only 55 seconds for Mike Modano to give the Stars the lead. Not only did the Sabres allow Sergei Zubov to skate freely from his own zone to the neutral zone, but they allowed Modano to get behind the defense. Zubov's pass was perfect, and Modano scored on the resulting breakaway.
"You shouldn't have that sort of breakdown in the first minute," Ruff said. "We weren't ready to play. You can't do that against Mike Modano. He's the best player in the league."
Less than three minutes later, the Sabres gave up a two-on-one rush. This time Modano hit Greg Adams in full flight on left wing. Adams cut around Darryl Shannon and chipped a shot past Hasek. The Stars had a 2-0 lead before the Sabres even had a shot on goal.
"I think the first 5 to 10 minutes we were all out of whack," defenseman Mike Wilson said. "We have to be ready in the first five, 10 minutes every game. We learned a lesson tonight."
After the Sabres closed to within a goal on a score by Miroslav Satan, another turnover in the neutral zone led indirectly to another Stars goal. Jere Lehtinen was hauled down on a breakaway, awarded a penalty shot, and converted to boost the lead to 3-1 before the end of the first period.
"They had a couple of breakaways. I wished I could have stopped them, but unfortunately Modano and Lehtinen scored," Hasek said. "I hope next game will be better."
Lehtinen added another goal in the second period, and everyone in the building could sense that the Sabres' winless streak was about to be extended to three games (0-2-1). The situation reached the point where Hasek heard some boos when his image appeared on the video screens of the scoreboard.
"For me personally, that's pretty disappointing," Wilson said. "He's the MVP and the Vezina winner. The way I look at it, Teddy is a great coach but they're blaming Dom for him being gone. But who did they come watch? They don't watch coaches walk up and down the bench. You watch the best goalie in the world."
Wayne Primeau's goal in the third period only completed the scoring. The Stars had little trouble keeping the Sabres bottled up the rest of the way.
"You look at Dallas' forwards -- they're all fast guys with great hands and great shots," Wilson said.
The Buffalo performance left Ruff with plenty of work to do before the team's next game Thursday against the Washington Capitals.
"Ninety percent of our problems were mental. We didn't come to work," he said. "There was no execution, no following of the game plan. . . . It was a very sloppily executed game."