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The fans aren't back yet, as about 12,000 empty seats will attest, but maybe -- just maybe -- those gritty, determined Buffalo Sabres of a year ago returned to Marine Midland Arena Thursday night.

The Sabres shrugged off an early deficit and kept their poise after two apparent goals by Donald Audette were disallowed to hand the previously unbeaten Washington Capitals a 5-2 defeat. The win evened their record at 2-2-1 and snapped a three-game winless streak.

Even if you believe the announced crowd figure (10,116), the game was witnessed by the smallest crowd yet to see a Sabres regular-season game in the year-old arena. The previous low was 13,371 for a loss to Tampa Bay last Oct. 15. That game, like Thursday's, was the second home game of the season, following a disappointing opening-night performance.

"Obviously we wanted to prove ourselves once again, that we're a hard-working team on most nights," said Jason Dawe, who had a pair of goals. "Plain and simple, it wasn't there the first game. Our team has to play on emotion if we expect to win."

Thursday night, it was there.

Beating the Capitals here is nothing new. The Sabres are 30-8-6 all-time at home against Washington, but this time they faced a zippy new version of the Capitals, not the creaky defensive-minded clubs that used to represent the nation's capital.

Led by a flashy collection of young forwards from Eastern Europe, coach Ron Wilson's team had outscored opponents 20-7 in getting off to a 4-0 start, which equaled the best in franchise history.

Thursday night, this budding offensive machine was shut down by the Sabres. None of Washington's array of offensive forwards -- veterans Peter Bondra, Adam Oates, Joe Juneau, Michael Pivonka and Steve Konowalchuk, and rookies Yogi Svejdovsky, Richard Zednik and Jan Bulis -- could register a goal against the Sabres. Both Washington goals were by defensemen -- Mark Tinordi and Calle Johansson.

The game's three stars went to Dawe, Audette and Alexei Zhitnik, whose return awakened the Sabres' power play -- 2 for 4 for the night.

Less obvious heroes were Brian Holzinger and Wayne Primeau, who took on important defensive assignments for Buffalo.

"You've got to give young Wayne Primeau a lot of credit," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "He played against the Pivonka-Bondra line all night and did a good job. And then the Holzinger line went head to head against Oates.

Holzinger, Audette and Miroslav Satan kept the Juneau-Oates-Svejdovsky line off the board completely. Primeau, Dixon Ward and Dawe did the same against Chris Simon-Pivonka-Bondra.

It was important, too, that the Sabres played with emotion and were seldom caught out of position. And when they were, Dominik Hasek was ready, stopping 29 of 31 shots.

The Sabres found themselves trailing early when Tinordi snuck in from the point, took a pass from Konowalchuk and chipped a shot over Hasek at 2:46 of the first period. Buffalo, which fell behind by two goals just 3:37 into Tuesday's home opener, looked like it was headed for another long night.

But the Sabres, as they did so often last season, hung on until they got a break. They even killed off a 3-minute disadvantage after Rob Ray was given a 5-minute major and a game misconduct for a check from behind on ex-Sabre Joe Reekie late in the first period.

Eight seconds after that penalty had elapsed, rookie Erik Rasmussen gobbled up a loose puck at center ice and skated in on goalie Bill Ranford. He nearly fanned on his 15-foot breakaway shot, but the change-of-pace fooled Ranford and beat him inside the right post at 1:48 of the second period.

The Sabres took over the game right there. The power play ended an 0-for-17 drought over the first four games when Dawe redirected a slap shot by Zhitnik between Ranford's pads at 9:18. It stayed 2-1 at the end of two periods but only after replay official John Galipeau disallowed two goals by Audette. The first was on a slap shot from the top of the left circle that appeared to enter the net and come out, but upon closer scrutiny never crossed the goal line. Seventy-six seconds later Audette did put the puck behind Ranford, but Holzinger was in the crease and the goal was rubbed out.

Angry fans littered the ice with paper cups and other debris, and the last 14.5 seconds of the second period were tacked onto the start of the third.

"An emotional roller coaster," Ruff said of the two lost goals. "We stressed that we had to go out and win the (third) period and don't worry about the two goals that were called back."

That's just what happened. Dawe picked up a ricochet off the end boards and banked it in off Ranford's pads to make it 3-1 -- finally -- just 57 seconds into the third. Then Satan scored on the power play off a setup by Matthew Barnaby at 8:45. Barnaby then stole a pass and fed Randy Burridge for his first goal to make it 5-2 after Johansson had beaten Hasek from 40 feet.

Last week in Washington the Caps scored four times in the third period for a 6-2 victory. This time it was the Sabres who had a three-bagger in the third.

"We ran out of gas toward the end of the game. Last night's game (a 6-3 victory at the New York Islanders) took a lot out of us, I think," said Caps coach Wilson.

The Sabres play the next two on the road -- Saturday in New Jersey and next Wednesday at Carolina -- before facing Montreal here Oct. 17. The Canadiens presumably will attract a crowd larger than the estimated 7,000 -- or the announced 10,116.

"If the players prove they want to play and they're going to play an emotional game, I think that's all the fans ask for," Ruff said. "We'll earn their respect and the fans will come back," he promised.

Thursday night was a good start.
The Sabres announced that the Buffalo State Ice Arena is their new permanent practice facility for use when Marine Midland Arena is not available. After using Sabreland in Wheatfield as their practice site for several years, the Sabres skated at the city-owned Lafayette Rink in North Buffalo last season.

Practices at Buffalo State will be open to the public.
Center Derek Plante sat out his second straight game because of back spasms. Other injured scratches were left wing Brad May (shoulder) and defenseman Jason Woolley (thumb). That left Buffalo with no healthy spare players so center Scott Nichol was recalled from Rochester. . . . While Burridge and Hasek are the only Buffalo players 30 or over, 12 Capitals are 30 or more. The oldest? Long-time Sabres nemesis Dale Hunter, who turned 37 on July 31.

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