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SABRES START SOUL SEARCHING AFTER LATEST FLOP

The Buffalo Sabres' current problems have gone beyond the point of a mere slump, and have reached a full-fledged crisis.

At least that's the impression they gave after losing to the Nashville Predators, 4-2, before 18,595 in Marine Midland Arena Thursday night. The Sabres are 0-2-1 in their last three games and 2-5-3 in their last 10.

Once coach Lindy Ruff was done expressing his displeasure with the team's performance, the Sabre players picked up right where he left off. Rob Ray led a players-only meeting that lasted about 30 minutes.

"We're in a situation now where we're losing games and walking away from it thinking it's not a very big deal," Ray said. "We're worrying about the next game. I don't think it was having a deep enough effect on a few guys in the dressing room. It's like as soon as the game is over it's a race to get out of here, and then point a finger at somebody else. I thought it was time that some guys were pointed out and said, 'You're not doing your job and we need you going.'

"It's not a time to turn on each other and fight and argue. Sometimes the coaches can talk until they are blue in the face, but it doesn't have the effect of another player standing up and letting you know that the team needs you going."

Captain Michael Peca agreed with the need for the team to air out its problems right away.

"Every guy has to go home tonight, think about what's been said, and decide if winning hockey games and committing themselves to the team is their primary goal," he said. "If it's not, you end up getting embarrassed like we did tonight."

While Ruff certainly didn't repeat verbatim to the media what he told the team, he did give out a laundry list of team problems for public consumption.

"The defense is a group that played soft," Ruff said. "We had forwards that didn't pay a price down low. Turnovers. In our own end we didn't finish at all. For a team (Nashville) that isn't big and not that strong, we didn't finish. We were a very passive group back there.

"We were outworked. I warned them, prepared them. They (the Predators) deserved to win the hockey game."

The Sabres let this game get away from them in the third period. The teams played a relatively loose first two periods. Cliff Ronning and Greg Johnson put the Predators ahead, 2-0, early in the second period, but Richard Smehlik and Dixon Ward responded for the Sabres several minutes later.

Both teams turned rather cautious at the start of the third period. It was as if both sides were waiting for a break, and Nashville got one when Jay McKee took a bad interference penalty with 9:26 left.

"I can honestly say that I know what I did," McKee said. "I was trying to avoid our player. I tried not to collide with Erik (Rasmussen), and their guy cut sharp, too. I know it looked awful, but I would never make a play like that late in the third period."

Ruff added, "It was a bad penalty
to take. It was a case of a total lack of discipline."

The Predators have the worst power play in the league on the road this season -- they were 6 for 76 entering the game -- but on the ensuing power play they looked as if they should have been ranked No. 1.

Nashville moved the puck skillfully around the perimeter.

Andrew Brunette found Blair Atcheynum all alone in the slot, and Atcheynum ripped a shot from 20 feet over Dominik Hasek's shoulder and into the top corner.

The Sabres still had 8:15 left to tie the game, but they had few good scoring chances in the next few minutes.

With less than four minutes to go the Predators caught Buffalo pressing, and took off on a two-on-one break.

Tom Fitzgerald converted Sebastien Bordeleau's perfect pass for some insurance. It was only Nashville's fifth road victory of the season.

When the final seconds wound down, the Sabres' performance was greeted by a firm round of boos from the sellout crowd. Peca gave the impression that he felt like joining in.

"They've been booing that last little while. That's the loudest it's gotten, but who wouldn't have booed?" he said.

The Sabres will try to turn those boos into cheers Saturday night, when they host Los Angeles.

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