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LOSS TO LEAFS IS REAL START FOR SABRES

No matter what was said a little more than a week ago, the Buffalo Sabres' training camp really began on Sunday.

The Sabres returned home from a seven-day tour of Austria on Saturday, and then got right into action with a 5-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs before 10,622 in Marine Midland Arena on Sunday night.

Coach Lindy Ruff now has every player in the organization under one roof for the first time this fall, since only 21 veterans made the trip to Europe.

"I don't really feel we went away for training camp. I think we went away for a week with our team, which was more of a team-building experience," he said. "You get over there and we had five days, with two for games. There wasn't much we could do.

"But it's such a long season, with so much time on the road, it's nice to see the guys bring their wives or a family member along on the trip. Overall, it was good for team harmony. We wanted to accomplish something from a conditioning aspect, and we did that. We worked hard in the games. The players took it seriously. I don't think we could have gotten much more out of it."

Brian Holzinger added, "It was a little bit different for a training camp, but all in all I think everybody had a great time. People treated us with a lot of class. We got to see a different part of the world that most of us had never seen before. To put that into a training camp makes it that much easier."

In Sunday's game, the competition for an open spot on defense got under way. The Sabres lost Bob Boughner to the Nashville Predators in the expansion draft. With Alexei Zhitnik and Mike Wilson still without contracts, Buffalo's lineup on Sunday was filled with players who might fit into that spot. Rumun Ndur, Cory Sarich, Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre and Jason Holland all are contenders for the job.

"I think one spot has to be filled by someone who is a Boughner clone. It's something we've talked about for a long time, and someone has to come out and grab it," Ruff said.

Considering the jet lag that several Buffalo players had after the flight home and the fact that preseason games generally are loosely played, it was difficult to judge who improved their chances Sunday. The Leafs jumped out to a 2-0 lead on goals by Jason Podollan and Derek King. The Sabres tied it early in the second period on scores by Holzinger and Holland, but the Leafs went back in front for good later in the period on goals by Todd Warriner and Yannick Tremblay. Warriner finished the scoring with a third-period goal.

"You saw the hitting (by the defensemen)," Ruff said. "Cory Sarich had a few good hits. Grand-Pierre made some nice plays. Jay McKee threw his weight around. There were a few things out there I liked."

The Sabres will practice today and Tuesday at Buffalo State, and play in Kitchener, Ont., against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night. Then it's back to Buffalo State for a few days of scrimmages.

"If we don't get too many injuries, we'll try to put together three teams and have two scrimmages a day," Ruff said. "If we lose two or three guys, we won't have enough for three teams. We'll make player assignments at the end of the week."

The Sabres are now 0-2 against NHL competition in preseason. Buffalo was 0-6-2 before league play began in 1997, and the team was in the division cellar for much of the first half of last season. Ruff would like to make sure that doesn't happen again.

"I think the whole theme this year is to get off to a good start and that starts in preseason," he said. "In preseason last year we didn't win a game. There were a lot of close hockey games, but we want to play well right from the start this time."

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