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OLD WOUNDS MIGHT BEGIN HEALING, AT LEAST FOR PLAYERS

No one mentioned the Pat LaFontaine trade. The names of Ted Nolan and John Muckler were not invoked. OK, the MVP was booed again, but there were so few people in Marine Midland Arena that Dominik Hasek could barely hear them.

With the atrocities of the recent past blissfully ignored for a while, the emphasis was on hockey in its purest form Thursday night and the result was a performance Sabre fans had expected on a regular basis after their guys won the NHL's Northeast Division championship last spring.

Not only were the Sabres firing the puck into the enemy net at a furious pace, they also rediscovered their power play, hibernating since the first crocus poked its head above the frozen sod six months ago.

To top it off, the vanquished was previously unbeaten Washington. The Caps had blasted Hasek for six goals in last week's meeting and also abused another premier goalie, New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, for four scores. Just today, a national sports weekly appeared with the prediction that "the Washington Caps are a Stanley Cup dark horse."

The Sabres began doing things right 48 hours earlier when they re-signed holdout defenseman Alexei Zhitnik.

"I try to play pretty smart," said Zhitnik, who may be ready to blossom in his third full season with Buffalo. "I tried to make simple plays, to get the shots on net. When we get the rebounds, we can score."

Sounds like a sound formula to me.

"He can lug the puck up the ice," observed Lindy Ruff, who coached Zhitnik for the very first time in this game. "He's such a fluid skater, he always gets involved in the rush."

Let the record show that Buffalo's power-play drought, zero for 17, ended at 9:18 of the second period of the season's fifth game when Zhitnik let fly with a shot from the blue line. Bill Ranford stopped it but Donald Audette fetched the rebound and slipped it to Jason Dawe for the score.

Zhitnik actually started the whole episode when he became so pesky that Washington winger Richard Zednik was penalized for tripping him.

"When you have a guy like Alexei, the opposition has no time to react," says Audette. "They don't know how the puck is going to end up."

Zhitnik was not officially involved in any of the other four goals which counted for Buffalo, but his presence appeared to so unnerve Ranford and the Caps that the Sabres' power play seemed to be transformed from embarrassment to instant asset.

Miroslav Satan scored another in the third period and Audette scored one which didn't count with 14.5 seconds left in the second period.

The replay officials ruled that Brian Holzinger had a skate in the crease when Audette's shot went past Ranford. Ironically, Audette scored an "almost" power-play goal moments earlier and that, too, was wiped out.

On that one, there was a delayed penalty called on Washington and Hasek was on his way off the the ice to give Buffalo an additional skater when Audette's shot appeared to go in the Cap net. The replay camera showed that the puck hit one pipe, then caromed to the other without touching net.

Nevertheless, all that action proved there is hope for the Sabres when the other guys are a man short.

The pity about this entertaining game was that not many people saw it. It wasn't shown on television and the Bills aren't home for the next two weekends so there isn't much strain on the leisure-time budget. But Sabre fans are voting with their feet, letting management know how they feel about all the disastrous decisions made after last season.

The crowd was announced at 10,116, but two or three thousand must have come disguised as empty seats.

"We're going to win them back," vowed Audette. "We want 18,500 fans in our building."

At the end of the game, not just a few but all of the Sabres skated to Hasek and patted him on the helmet. Maybe the healing has begun.

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