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SARICH HAS TOOLS TO SUCCEED WITH SABRES -- AND THAT'S NO ACCIDENT

The first thing you notice about Cory Sarich is his poise. It shows when he steps on the ice, in the dressing room, during a bus accident.

Yes, a bus accident.

The Rochester Americans were coming back from a road trip earlier this season when a car slammed into their bus at an intersection. A woman was thrown from the car and skidded across the street. Amerks coach Brian McCutcheon broke a rib.

It was a frightening scene. A few Amerks became queasy, and several became momentarily hysterical. Sarich was concerned about the woman, who would later walk away, but remained unruffled. The defenseman surveyed the situation and quietly sat down.

"I was calm, but it was pretty scary," he said Thursday. "There wasn't a whole lot I could do. In the back of my mind, I was hoping everybody was OK. Some guys were shaken up. I was fine. There were a lot of people there to help."

Coaches often talk about the importance of a player's panic threshold, the amount of time one can withstand pressure before succumbing. It's about establishing whether they will choke in certain situations. You know, never let them see you sweat.

The Buffalo Sabres are still trying to figure out Sarich's breaking point. After 42 games and one accident with the Amerks, they have yet to see the 20-year-old defenseman rattled. Basically, the kid is cooler than Fonzie -- and he's many years younger.

"Composure? He's got a lot of composure," Sabres director of player personnel Don Luce said. "He's very mature for a kid for that age. He has a nice, quiet confidence about himself. It makes a big difference. That's what separates players."

McCutcheon vividly remembers a play Sarich made against Kentucky on Nov. 21 that told him the 6-foot-3, 180-pounder has the talent necessary to play in the NHL. The Amerks won a faceoff and the puck squirted to Sarich at the point. Rather than take a quick slap shot, he patiently sifted through the Thoroughblades' defense and scored.

"There was something there," McCutcheon said. "You could see the poise. You could see the maturity. He has all the tools and, more importantly, he has the mental makeup."

The Amerks have three defensemen -- Sarich, Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre and Dean Melanson -- and goalie Martin Biron going to the AHL All-Star game Monday in Philadelphia. The group explains why the Amerks have an AHL-best 2.07 goals-against average.

The Sabres have several good prospects in their system. Sarich, a former assistant captain of the Canadian World Junior team, might be the best. Buffalo selected him with the first pick in the second round in 1996. He has three goals and 19 assists for the Amerks.

"I'm starting to figure out I can play at this level," Sarich said. "I'm not talking about going out and dominating, but fitting in and being steady. It's come along. Things are starting to fall into place. Things keep getting easier. Even from last year, I've made some big steps already."

Sarich, of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, left his junior team a year early and signed a three-year contract last May. There's an outside chance he could make his NHL debut this season. With the Sabres playing well overall despite their recent slump, there's no reason to rush him into the lineup.

The Sabres would rather he polish his skills in Rochester and ride the bus around the AHL, giving him more appreciation when he reaches the NHL. Although reluctant to say so publicly, the team is anticipating his arrival.

"When it happens, I'm going to be anxious to get going," he said. "Until then, I'm going to concentrate on what I have to do here."

Obviously, he's well schooled in political correctness.

"I know it sounds like I'm trying to be modest," he said. "Really, the big thing is concentrating on what I have to do down here. I don't want to get my head too wrapped up about something that may never happen."

Barring disaster, it's going to happen.

Sarich is a good skater with great vision, makes sound decisions, is solid in his own end and is aggressive. He threw several crunching checks early in the season before learning when to make the big hit and when to stay back. He's on the power-play and penalty-killing units and has impressed coaches and teammates with a good attitude. He's also a fast learner.

His slap shot needs work and he needs to add bulk, but those weaknesses should be overcome with experience and age. Others only dream of having his future.

"It's scary to think how young he is at this stage of his development," said defenseman Mike Hurlbut, who has played 31 NHL games in his 10 professional seasons. "He's got everything going for him -- everything. As long as he keeps developing, he has a great future in the NHL."

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