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SABRES' WOOLLEY BECOMING A FORCE AS A TWO-WAY PLAYER

There's a surprise leader among the Buffalo Sabres in plus-minus rankings.

Jason Woolley goes into tonight's game with the Florida Panthers in the National Car Rental Center (7:30, Empire, 104.1 FM) at plus-10. That's not only ahead of everyone else on the roster, but it's already better than his plus-8 figure for all of last season. The number is a sign that Woolley is becoming a solid defenseman at both ends of the ice.

"No matter how much you like or dislike the stat, when you're a plus you enjoy it a little more than when you're on the other side," Woolley said. "It's a funny stat. You can step out of the penalty box and have absolutely nothing to do with the play, and get scored on, and it's a minus."

Woolley has shown in his 14 months as a Sabre that he is a fine offensive player; he currently is tied for the team lead in assists with nine. Now Woolley's defense is starting to get a little notice. While there's no doubt that plus-minus can be misleading over the short term, usually the best players have good numbers in the category over the long haul. Earlier this season, Woolley was a plus-14 over seven games, meaning he must have been doing something right.

"There's a little bit of luck involved in that," Woolley said. "It works both ways. It's nice to be on the positive side. It always makes you feel better about your game. At the same time, when the forwards are scoring like they have been in the last several games, you're going to be on for some of them and that's when you get a plus."

Coach Lindy Ruff added, "We asked him to play better in his own end. I thought last year he proved he could play against any line."

Woolley's improvement in his own end has allowed the team's coaching staff to use him in a slightly different way this season. Woolley lost his defensive partner from last season, Bob Boughner, over the summer in the expansion draft. Ruff has been pairing the 29-year-old Woolley with young defensemen Rumun Ndur and Jay McKee at times because the coach has confidence that Woolley can help compensate for their inexperience.

The switch has meant a new position on the ice for Woolley during even-strength situations, as he's had to move to the right side of the ice.

"It's a little different view to the game," Woolley said. "You're taking a pass from your partner kind of blind-sided. When you take it on the other side, you're open to what's in front of you. I tell Rumun or Jay to watch out, because I'll wander over there just out of habit sometimes.

"It's going to take some time. But there's a lot of good things about playing on the right side, offensively as well. You like to come down the right side and cut to the net on your forehand. When you come down the left side, you cut to the net on your backhand. I've actually enjoyed playing the right side."

Ruff has tried to do some subtle substituting with Woolley and the other defensemen in order to give everyone the best chance at succeeding. The coach might use Alexei Zhitnik and Richard Smehlik against an opponent's top line. Then Ruff will use Woolley and his partner against a less potent combination. When Woolley decides to cheat from his defensive position to try to create some offense, the other team is less likely to capitalize in the case of a quick transition toward the Buffalo goal.

According to Ruff, Woolley understands how to adjust his role depending on who he is playing against. He has to stay at home more when he's on the ice against the opponent's top offensive lines

"Against third and fourth lines, we ask him to take some chances," Ruff said. "We put him in situations where he can jump up in the play, and he does an excellent job in that sense. At the same time, he's not allowing anything in his end."

It was Woolley's offensive skills -- particularly on the power play -- that earned him a regular spot in the National Hockey League. He believes his defense will help keep him there.

"You ask any offensive defenseman, and he'll say you can't forget about playing defense. That's what I've worked the hardest on in the past three or four years -- to improve my defense. You get labeled as an offensive defenseman, and they forget you can do things in your own end. It's nice to see things are coming around."

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