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Jason Dawe finds himself in an unusual position these days for a Buffalo Sabre -- ranked among the National Hockey League leaders in goals.

With five goals in the first six games heading into tonight's game here against the Carolina Hurricanes (7:30 p.m., Empire; Radio 104.1 FM), the 24-year-old right wing was tied for second behind Brett Hull of St. Louis.

"Too bad it wasn't the 81st game of the season, not the sixth," Dawe said of his status as a league leader.

Last season, Donald Audette was the Sabres' leading goal producer with 28, which tied him for 38th best in the NHL. Derek Plante, the team scoring leader with 53 points, stood only in a tie for 74th in the league.

Dawe didn't score his fifth goal last season until his 17th game and in 81 games fell short of the career-high 25 goals he produced in 67 games in 1995-96. The only game he missed was the season opener, when he still was a contract holdout.

Five goals in six games is a pace that would produce 68 over a season.

Surprising, too, is the fact that Dawe has gotten off to a strong start without his usual center, Michael Peca, who is unsigned. The two played together nearly the entire last season and even killed penalties together.

Two of Dawe's goals have come on the power play, but in even-strength situations he is not on the No. 1 offensive line. In the last two games he's been with Wayne Primeau and Dixon Ward, drawing checking assignments against one of the opposition's top two lines. "He puts himself in the right position around the net, especially on the power play," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said of Dawe's fast start.

"He's tipped a couple of shots. That pass from (Alexei) Zhitnik (in last week's victory over Washington) was just perfect. Jason knows where he has to be and he's got a heckuva good shot. When he uses it he usually scores goals."

After a career best plus-14 last season, Dawe has a team-high plus-3 so far.

One reason Dawe isn't getting too excited about his goals so far is he knows there are streaks when they are hard to come by. After the Sabres clinched the Northeast Division title last year, Dawe went the final 11 games without a goal and had only three in his last 21 games.

Dawe and his teammates expect a physical game tonight. When the Sabres and Hurricanes, the former Hartford Whalers, met in the final preseason game at Marine Midland Arena, things got ugly. Even goalies Dominik Hasek and Sean Burke got into it when fighting broke out. It started when a Carolina player ran into Hasek.

That's been a standard tactic of coach Paul Maurice's team against The Dominator. It worked last season, it seems. Hasek was only 2-4 with a 3.83 goals-against average in six games against the Whalers.

"There's bad blood there," said Sabres winger Brad May, who will be in the lineup for his first game of the regular season since injuring his shoulder during the fight in the Carolina preseason game.

Ruff believes the Hurricanes, who are struggling at 1-5-1, may attempt to intimidate his team again with their tough guys such as Stu Grimson, Enrico Ciccone and heavy-hitting Keith Primeau.

"I'm expecting no different," Ruff said. "I think we play better when we play physical. I think there could be a little carry-over (from the preseason). I think the players think about it. I don't think they believe what Carolina did was right, so there should be some residual effect."

Being a divisional game stirs things up even more.

"It's going to make a difference emotion-wise and in physical play," Ruff said.

Besides May, the Sabres will get center Derek Plante back tonight after he missed three games with back spasms.

Wayne Primeau, Rob Ray, Randy Burridge and May were on a fourth line in practice Tuesday at Buffalo State. Since Ray may be needed on left wing to counter the Hartford muscle, it would not be surprising to see Burridge scratched tonight.

May is anxious to get playing and was reluctant at first to talk about his return.

"I just don't want to go out on my first shift back and get injured again," said the hard-luck winger who came back from shoulder surgery last season only to suffer a broken right hand the next week.

"I've got to go right out (tonight) and get right after it and get rid of the butterflies. I never liked Hartford. I liked to run their defense and get physical."

"It was always fun to play them. It doesn't matter if it's preseason or what."

Defenseman Jason Woolley, who is recovering from a fractured left thumb suffered in the final preseason game, was re-examined Tuesday but isn't expected back until next week.

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