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IT'S HATS OFF TO WARD AS SABRES OVERCOME RANGERS

About two dozen people left Marine Midland Arena without their hats on Wednesday night, a sign of thanks on the eve of this holiday to the Buffalo Sabres for keeping Dixon Ward.

Ward, for the first time in his career, woke up the morning after a game owning a good supply of smelly, grungy lids -- a reward for scoring the first three goals in the Sabres' 4-2 victory over the New York Rangers before a sellout crowd of 18,595.

"I appreciate the gesture, but I probably won't be putting any of them on," Ward said. "I didn't see anybody throw any brand new ones out there. I don't think anybody's that stupid."

This game had to be especially sweet for Ward, who was exposed to the expansion draft in June when Bob Boughner packed up his belongings and went to the Nashville Predators.

Buffalo's philosophy was that Ward, 30, wouldn't be taken by Nashville because he would become an unrestricted free agent after next season.

Still, it was a gamble.

"The expansion draft was an unfortunate thing," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "There are players you have to expose. We were thinking we would lose one particular player. We didn't think we would lose Dixon even if we exposed him."

Ward, the subject of trade rumors late last season, never wanted to leave. He wanted to stick around Buffalo and see whether this team could go a step beyond the Eastern Conference finals.

Well, in the second period, after scoring his team-leading eighth goal and completing his first career hat trick, nobody in the Sabres' organization wanted him anywhere else but in their lineup.

"It's tough to see him being exposed," Sabres captain Michael Peca said. "We love playing together. We played together for a lot of years. Dixon just keeps working at it. He shows the resilience to keep coming back."

Ward's job coming into this game was helping Peca and Vaclav Varada shut down Wayne Gretzky's line that also included Petr Nedved, who was acquired in a five-player deal with Pittsburgh hours before the game, and Niklas Sundstrom.

They shut it out, extending the Sabres unbeaten streak against the Rangers to eight games (5-0-3). Darryl Shannon also scored for the Sabres. Nedved had one assist on a different line.

With Peca and Varada both assisting on Ward's goals, they combined for nine points -- four more than the line had in seven home games combined going into the contest. Ward, Peca and Varada finished as the three stars.

"They really didn't create a problem for us," Varada said. "We've played better first lines. Gretzky was just skating around without the puck. It was easy."

The Rangers came into the game hoping to celebrate the arrival of Nedved and coach John Muckler's first appearance in Buffalo with New York since he was fired by the Sabres.

Give the Rangers credit. They weren't completely shut out for a fifth straight game by Hasek, who went 281 minutes, 57 seconds without allowing a goal to New York before Adam Graves scored for New York late in the first period.

Mike Knuble added a goal with 3:50 remaining after scooping up Nedved's rebound.

"It's nice to score -- finally," Muckler said. "We scored a couple of good goals on him, but he made some great saves."

Ward had always been a pretty puck handler, but the knock on him has been that sometimes he gets too cute.

Against Toronto last Saturday, his pass to Darryl Shannon was intercepted and led to the Maple Leafs' winning goal, breaking Buffalo's nine-game unbeaten streak.

"Everybody in here is a professional, and you know when you screw up," Sabres forward Rob Ray said. "They only thing you can do is come out the next night, turn it up and make sure they forget about it. He did that."

Ward didn't waste any time making up for the mistake, and he gave the Sabres a 3-1 lead going into the third period.

He opened the scoring about 8 1/2 minutes into the game when he one-timed Peca's bouncing pass with the Sabres on a two-on-one break. But he was hardly finished.

Ward made it 2-0 just more than four minutes later when he stole the puck from Mathieu Schneider just inside the New York blue line and beat rookie Dan Cloutier between the legs.

Ward completed the hat trick and drew a standing ovation with 5:55 left in the second period when he grabbed Peca's shot behind the net and backhanded the puck off Cloutier's right pad.

"It's a new experience," Ward said. "It's exciting. I'm not going to lie to you. That's what you dream about when you're a kid. It's a good feeling, but more importantly, we came out with a real strong win."

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