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The last time Lindy Ruff drew a deep breath and rolled the dice he benched Dominik Hasek, the league's reigning MVP.

Gutsy move. Had he lost Hasek, the Sabres' season and Ruff's career in Buffalo would have been finished, but Hasek responded and has played better ever since.

That was nothing compared to what he did this week.

Ruff Wednesday challenged the entire team. After the 4-0 loss vs. the New York Islanders, he took them on over the issues of grit, determination and pride. He questioned their leadership and whether some of them even wanted to be Sabres. He vowed there would be changes. Most importantly he questioned their heart.

The good thing is they responded.

To say the Sabres played well and dominated the Montreal Canadiens Friday in the Marine Midland Arena would be wrong, but you can say that they played hard and they did whatever they could to win.

That was the most important thing to come out of Friday's game. Their coach challenged them. They responded.

It doesn't always work that way.

Orval Tessier once questioned the heart of the Chicago Blackhawks. He never worked in the NHL again. A more recent example can be made of former Philadelphia Flyers coach Terry Murray. Murray, reportedly with the backing of several higher-ups in the Flyers' front office, implied that Eric Lindros and company might just be choking in their Stanley Cup final series with Detroit last spring.

The team, especially Lindros, didn't respond and Murray is now Philadelphia's director of professional scouting.

Ruff knows all those stories. He also knows the risk he took in publicly berating his players, but if he's to survive as a coach in this league and if his team is to salvage anything from what so far has been a terribly disappointing season, those things needed to be said.

No matter what the risk.

"I think they did (respond), but yes, I was very worried," Ruff said. "I respect what this team did last year, I really do, but they have to respect how hard it is to repeat it."

The Sabres haven't done much of that this season. Instead of challenging themselves to do better despite the problems they've had since the end of last season, they went the other way. They've grabbed every excuse that came their way. In hockey they're called crutches, and Ruff took it on himself to kick them all away.

"The whole idea (of challenging their character) is to take away their crutches (excuses for not playing hard) until they have no more left," Ruff said. "You look at the makeup of our team, and a lot of what we have to do is based on heart and soul and grit. We're one of the smaller teams and one of the younger teams, but we can make that up with grit and determination. It's something this team has done in the past. They realize it, but occasionally they have to be challenged."

And they have to accept the challenge.

Most of the Sabres' veterans did that Friday. Michael Peca played with a certain feistiness not seen in many outings this season. Brad May played with authority and Donald Audette repeatedly drove to the net. Early in the second period, Dixon Ward found himself lying facedown in a puddle of his own blood and teeth. He returned in time to play the third period and found himself diving in front of pucks in the final minute of play.

Speaking through the space where five teeth used to be, Ward said the team, especially the veterans on the team, had to respond to Ruff's challenge.

"We had no choice," he said. "We had to make a statement and a lot of talk just isn't going to do it. We had to make a statement on the ice and show people we can do what we have to do to win."

One look at the standings and it was obvious they had to do it now.

The Sabres went into the game with the worst record in the Northeast Division and the second worst record in the entire Eastern Conference. If it weren't for the perennially hapless Tampa Bay Lightning, the Sabres would not only be the worst team in conference, they would challenge for the worst point total of any team in the league.

If the Sabres wanted to stay in touch with the rest of the division and the conference, they had to show it.

"Our focus was to battle as hard as we could and then whatever happens happens," Ward said.

"That's the way we have to play to win."

Now and for the rest of the season.

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