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'TOP LINE' SUFFERING THROUGH POWER SHORTAGE FOR SABRES

The Buffalo Sabres thought they had a scoring line that would live happily ever after when they acquired Geoff Sanderson and teamed him with Brian Holzinger and Donald Audette.

The plan hasn't worked.

"For a line that was supposed to be creating offense, I don't think we're doing the job right now," said Sanderson, acquired on Feb. 5 from Vancouver. "We've got to start putting the puck in the net a little more."

The numbers bear out Sanderson's remarks. Since being traded to Buffalo for Brad May, the left winger has two goals and three assists in 13 games. (May has four goals and one assist in 16 games as a Canuck). Holzinger has no goals and one assist in six games (he was out for a while with a sprained ankle). Audette is the line's points leader with three goals and four assists in 13 games.

The offensively challenged Sabres need more scoring than that from their supposed scoring threats.

"Some line has to carry us," associate coach Don Lever said. "They have to take the responsibility. They have to produce scoring chances."

Sanderson and Holzinger are two of the faster skaters on the team, and Audette isn't far behind. The idea was for the three of them to zip past opposing defensemen and watch the goals follow.

There are a few reasons why that hasn't happened yet, and the first was an injury to Holzinger. The center sprained his ankle in Washington on March 1, the line's third game together. Holzinger was skating well at the time of the injury, but he was sidelined for more than two weeks. He returned on Tuesday but it's almost been like starting over for the line.

"The last few games have been tough," Holzinger said. "Before I got hurt, we were starting to come together. We're back to that feeling-out process."

The Sabres have done so much switching of lines over the past couple of years that it's been difficult for opponents to identify a so-called "first line" on their roster.

That changed when Sanderson teamed up with Holzinger and Audette. The line has been going up against top checking lines and the Buffalo unit has to fight through that.

"Saturday against Boston, they were almost playing a 1-4 defense against us," Holzinger said. "That makes it tough to get in there and forecheck and come up with the puck.

"With the three of us, we'd rather carry it in and make a play off the rush if we can. We're just not able to do it right now. They're going to make us dump it in. We have to use our speed when that happens, and make sure we get it and come up with the puck."

Audette added, "I think our line can forecheck more, do more down low. If we get caught, we have to come back and make it a three-on-three break (instead of a three-on-two rush by opponents)."

All the offensive talent in the world won't do the Sabres any good if the puck is in their own zone. That has been a problem for this line on too many shifts for Sanderson's liking.

"The bottom line for our line is offense," Sanderson said. "I think we've been playing in our end way too much."

The Sabres start a road trip in Calgary Tuesday against the Flames, the first of five straight games against Western Conference teams. That should provide more chances for the line to use its speed, since the West features a more wide-open style. But if Holzinger, Sanderson and Audette don't come up with some points soon, Lever said it may be time to try "Plan B."

"It will be a pretty good test to see if three smaller types of guys can handle punishment on the road," the coach said. "They are going to be checked. If they don't come up with any points or do anything, then we're going to have to do something to adjust to that."

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