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Never mind the Buffalo Sabres' season-opening victory last season, when any team that won its first game found themselves at the top of the division. By the second game, they were headed toward the bottom.

The last time the Sabres had a hold on first place in the Northeast Division after more than one game, Ted Nolan was their coach, Pat LaFontaine was their captain and Monica Lewinsky was just like any other intern working in the White House.

It was 19 months ago when the Sabres finished the 1996-97 regular season as the surprise team in the NHL and winners of their first division title in 16 years. In case nobody noticed, they have a share of the lead again with Toronto after beating the Maple Leafs, 4-1, on Friday night.

"It's an accomplishment," forward Brian Holzinger said. "It always seems like we've been the underdogs no matter what position we're in and no matter what the circumstances were. It's a little satisfying to be in the position we're in. But we can't get too cocky because it could just turn the other way."

OK, so it's November and much too early to be looking at the standings after 15 games. And the Sabres could find themselves in second place again with a loss to the Leafs tonight, but at least this should be considered:

The Sabres are back to performing they way they did in the playoffs last season, when they went to the Eastern Conference finals. They are off to their best start (8-3-4) in nine years and have the best record in the NHL since Jan. 1 (30-13-15). How long it will last, nobody knows.

"When you're winning, you don't think you're ever going to lose," coach Lindy Ruff said. "When you don't have momentum and confidence, you don't get the bounces. Right now, we're getting them."

Curtis Brown and Dixon Ward each had a goal and one assist for the Sabres, who pushed their unbeaten streak to nine games (6-0-3) with their third consecutive victory. They are 5-0-1 in the division.

The Sabres were careful not to get carried away by their current streak. But if they win the second half of the home-and-home series tonight, they'll be leading the division all by themselves. If not, they still have four games in hand on the Leafs.

"One thing we do very well as a team is take every game individually," Brown said. "We're on a real good roll, and we don't want to let this slip away. We want to control what we can do. It's not realistic to know this is going to go on forever, but you want to keep riding it."

Matthew Barnaby and Michal Grosek also scored on Toronto goalie Felix Potvin. Brian Holzinger and Jason Woolley each had two assists. Dominik Hasek made 32 saves, allowing Fredrik Modin's deflection goal in the second period.

Buffalo improved to 10-1-4 against the Leafs since losing to Toronto on Feb. 17, 1991, at Memorial Auditorium. This season alone, the Sabres have outscored the Leafs, 14-5.

"It seems like they're getting all the bounces and things are going their way," Leafs forward Mats Sundin said.

The Sabres had five days off since their last game, and they came out sluggish. but they regained their legs midway through the first period and never looked back after Brown opened the scoring on a one-timer from the slot 49 seconds before the first intermission.

The Sabres had all the goals they needed 2:23 into the second period when Grosek gloved Brown's deflected shot and beat Potvin with a wrist shot into the top corner from in close.

"It would be hard to look at goaltending and say that was a factor," Leafs coach Pat Quinn said. "On the first goal, we didn't have a blue sweater around. The second was pretty much similar."

Modin made it 2-1 when he deflected Tomas Kaberle's slap shot from the point past Hasek.Then along came Barnaby, fresh off a four-game suspension, to hand the Sabres a two-goal lead again 4:27 into the second period on a pretty play after receiving a pass from Brian Holzinger along the right wing. "They're a very talented team," Barnaby said. "They're in first place. I'm not going to start carving their defense. It's going to be a war again (tonight)."

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