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SABRES BRING FRESH OUTLOOK INTO SECOND HALF

The Buffalo Sabres are getting ready to start a new season. It's really the only way to look at their final 39 games considering how poorly they played in the last three weeks.

Gone now is the 4-7-2 slump they took into the All-Star break last weekend. Also history are the tired legs that took them into the slump. What remains is the tough schedule that led to the tired legs, so chances are their season won't become much easier.

"We talked about getting off to an extremely good start to the season, and this was an extremely good start," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Monday. "The unfortunate thing is we have some other teams that are off to fabulous starts and playing really good hockey. It's just going to get tougher."

The Sabres can expect their season to become much more intense starting tonight when they play the Phoenix Coyotes in Marine Midland Arena (7:05, Empire, 104.1 FM).

The Sabres play three home games in the next five nights before playing 14 games in February. With a 23-13-7 record going into the All-Star break, the Sabres are on pace for 101 points. They haven't reached that total since the 1983-84 season.

Even with the impressive record good for 53 points, the Sabres are in third place in the Northeast Division behind Toronto and Ottawa and sixth in the Eastern Conference, which includes Philadelphia, New Jersey and Carolina. The Hurricanes have 47 points but are third in the conference because they lead their division.

"We're still in a pretty good position right now, but there is a lot of work to do," defenseman Alexei Zhitnik said. "It's going to be difficult. Everybody is going to be fighting for a playoff spot. The second half of the season is more difficult for everybody, and there's a lot more pressure."

There are a few players who would just as soon forget about the first half of the season. Left winger Geoff Sanderson has just two goals since Nov. 7 after he went scoreless in 21 games. Right winger Matthew Barnaby went 19 straight games without a goal. Zhitnik played terrible at times before playing better over his last five games.

"I just have to cut the chord at the All-Star break," Sanderson said. "This is the start of the second season for me. The team is playing well, and I'm happy. I'm not all that terribly disappointed that I didn't play well because I'm in it for the team."

"You erase it from your mind," Barnaby said. "You score three goals in the next three (games), and you're going to be a hero again. It's the way this game is, and you take it. You work hard and look for the breaks. If they come, they come. If they don't, they don't."

The game against Phoenix should resume a duel between Eurogoalies Dominik Hasek and Coyotes All-Star Nikolai Khabibulin.

Hasek is considered the best goalie in the world. Khabibulin isn't too far behind.

Khabibulin outlasted Hasek in a 1-0 Phoenix victory Jan. 11, an intense game that was scoreless going into the third period. The win regenerated the talented Coyotes, who have lost just once in the last six games (3-1-2) after struggling through the previous 10.

"There was a lot of emotion going," defenseman Jason Woolley said. "It was like a playoff game. There was no thinking going on. It was all action. We'll go out (tonight) and go hard and go at them. We know they're going to do that to us."

It was about this time last season that the Sabres went on a 13-game unbeaten streak, which eventually carried them into the playoffs and instilled a confidence that helped them reach the Eastern Conference finals.

This season has been the opposite.

Buffalo got off to a fast start and was simply trying to hang on going into the break. Whether the Sabres regain their early season form or continue their slide should decide where -- or perhaps whether -- they are seeded for the playoffs.

"This is an important stretch for us," Ruff said. "We want to try to establish something good on home ice. We've slipped of late. With Ottawa and Toronto playing well, we can't lose ground. This is the ground we have to make up."

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