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In this, the most wonderful time of the year, the Buffalo Sabres coaches are surely full of wonder.

They wonder what to make of their team. They wonder how the Sabres can play so well and so poorly in the same game. And they wonder what to do about it.

Once again, the Sabres were inconsistent, and the result this time was a 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils Monday before 16,039 in Marine Midland Arena.

With one game left this month, the Sabres still are hard-pressed to explain what their problem is or where they are going this year.

"I'd like to think that we're putting something together and are going to get things straightened out, but obviously we're not," said defenseman Jason Woolley. "We're just not putting the wins together."

So far this month, the Sabres have played 14 games -- winning five of them by shutout -- and are still six games below .500. That's because as brilliant as Dominik Hasek has been, the Sabres still have a 6-7-1 mark for December. That leaves them at 13-19-6 going into the final game of 1997. Six games below .500 is their worst record of the season.

"It's very frustrating," said coach Lindy Ruff. "Most of the time in the last 10 games, I liked a lot of what I saw, but . . ."

But the Sabres don't win and they don't gain ground in the standings.

Especially when they fall behind, 2-0, on the first three shots in the game. The obvious lack of early focus was the reason the Sabres lost this and many other games this season.

"If you can't come out prepared to play, you don't even belong in this league," said an angry Michael Peca.

"Those first five minutes were absolutely awful," added Ruff. "If you want to point out anything in the hockey game, it's the first five minutes of the game. For (the next 55) minutes we battled hard, and I thought we worked as hard as we could. . . . The start was the disappointing part. I'm at a loss to explain it."

The Sabres were completely outclassed in the first five minutes and appeared as if they weren't even aware there was a contest under way.

Randy McKay scored off the Devils' first shot on their first soiree in the Sabres' zone. He was alone and untouched when he beat Hasek with a quick wrist shot off a setup from long-ago Sabre Dave Andreychuk. Bill Guerin added a second New Jersey goal on the team's third shot of the game, on the power play. In the next 10 minutes, Peca and New Jersey's Steve Thomas exchanged goals, but by then, the game was essentially over.

Giving up early goals and taking early penalties have been season-long problems for the Sabres.

"We tried," said Hasek, "but you could look around the room (after the second period) and feel that we weren't going to be able to come back."

That's understandable. The Devils might be the best team in hockey. They definitely are the best team with a lead. (They stand 22-0-1 in games in which they lead after two periods.) The last thing the Sabres wanted to do was let them get ahead early.

"I don't know why that happens but it's definitely something that needs to be addressed -- and soon," added Peca. "We're just not focused. And that early in the game, the focus should be 100 percent. For a professional athlete, there's no excuse for it."

"It (getting a lead) is what we were talking about before the game," said Devils coach Jacques Lemaire. "We tried to get a lead on them because when a team is fragile and you get a quick lead on them, you set the pace and you get a better chance to win. Playing catch-up hockey is tough for any team."

For Buffalo it has been next to impossible.

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