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PREDATORS ANYTHING BUT EXPANSION PUSHOVERS

The Buffalo Sabres continue their homestand tonight in Marine Midland Arena with a game against the Nashville Predators (7 p.m., Empire, Radio 104.1 FM).

That's Predators. P-r-e-d-a-t-o-r-s.

Nashville is the newest team in the National Hockey League, and tonight marks its first appearance in Buffalo. The Predators don't have any big names on their roster, but they are having a respectable inaugural season.

Nashville comes into tonight's game with a 16-26-4 record, good for 36 points. Entering Wednesday's contests, that point total was ahead of the Calgary Flames, Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders, and it was tied with the Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals.

"That says a lot for their scouts, the way they put a team together," Sabre defenseman Jay McKee said. "There are a lot of quality players out there. They put together a team that works hard, and it's a credit to them."

The leading expert on expansion teams in the Buffalo organization is head coach Lindy Ruff, who was with the Florida Panthers as an assistant coach when that team entered the league in 1993-94. The Panthers had a 33-34-17 record that first season, the best of any expansion team.

Coaching a rookie squad offers some unique challenges, according to Ruff.

"The thing you worry about most is scoring goals, because you don't have those premier players to score the goals for you," he said. "They have found a couple of players through the expansion draft who have scored for them. I think you stress defense and try to get into low-scoring games. You have to rely on goaltending and wait for opportunities to score goals."

Jason Woolley joined Ruff and the Panthers in the team's second season. He found that it doesn't take very long for a collection of individuals to come together as a team.

"It's a nice team to be part of," he said of expansion clubs. "There are a lot of misfits of guys picked up on waivers and signed from different teams. You can see in Nashville they have gotten together and are playing pretty decently."

One of the biggest problems for the Sabres in preparing for an expansion team like Nashville is that an image doesn't pop into the players' minds as they prepare for the game. Teams know all about squads like the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins at this point. Nashville is different, especially since it is in the Western Conference and only faces Buffalo twice a season.

"Having played in the league a few years, I've gotten to know the teams in the league and how they play a little bit," McKee said. "It gives you an advantage going into the game. We don't know much about Nashville. We're kind of clueless as to how they play."

The Predators' leading scorer is veteran center Cliff Ronning, who was acquired from the Phoenix Coyotes early in the season. Ronning has 35 points, the same number as Buffalo's leading scorer, Miroslav Satan.

The Predators' goal-scoring leader is Sergei Krivokrasov, who was traded by Chicago to Nashville shortly after the expansion draft. He has 15 goals; only Satan and Michael Peca have more on the Sabres. However, only Ronning and Krivokrasov are in double figures in goals on the Nashville roster, while the Sabres have six such players.

Only two members of the Nashville organization are familiar names to the fans here, and one of them is the play-by-play announcer. Pete Weber, who worked on Sabres' and Bisons' broadcasts during his time here, joined the Predators at the start of the preseason.

The other name is Bob Boughner, who was lost by the Sabres to the Predators in the expansion draft. Dixon Ward of the Sabres has stayed in touch with his good friend.

"He enjoys it (Nashville)," Ward said. "He's a big part of their defense there, and they count on him in key situations. He's always been a reliable guy when the going gets tough. He's strong mentally. He plays the same every night. You know what to expect, and he's doing a good job."

Woolley had the chance to "run into" his former defense partner when the two teams played in December.

"He hit me real good the last time we played them," Woolley said. "Maybe I'll get him back."

In the first meeting of the teams on Dec. 5, the Sabres broke a 1-1 tie in the final six minutes and went on to win, 3-1. Ruff said he expects another difficult game tonight.

"I had a feeling that the players would think of Nashville, an expansion team, and think it would be an easy game," Ruff said. "I think some of our players were fooled. We can't be fools Thursday night. . . . They (the Predators) have a lot of things going for them. They are a dangerous team to play against."

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