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DISSENSION NOW TOUGHEST OPPONENT FOR SABRES

The Buffalo Sabres' recent problems are not just about playing soft defensively, or not finishing their checks, or the lack of a consistent goal scorer.

Their troubles over the last month go deep into the dressing room and have infected the team chemistry that made them successful over the last several years. After starting the season 19-5-5, the fragile Sabres appear near collapse from within.

"Any time you struggle, you tend to run for cover," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "We have some players that are trying to hide. It's not a time to hide. It's a time to work harder."

Consider:

* When right winger Miroslav Satan was on an eight-game scoring streak earlier this season, his linemate, Michal Grosek, requested a move to another line. Grosek thought Satan was shooting too much, and even suggested teammates play keep-away because Satan had enough goals.

* Even though Ruff is generally popular with the players, some are dumbfounded with his handling of temperamental right winger Matthew Barnaby. Barnaby has not produced offensively almost all season, but continues to be a regular in the lineup and on the power play. Others have been benched for lesser offenses.

While Barnaby at times can be a force, some teammates believe he has become a farce. He was tossed out of a 4-2 loss to Nashville Thursday night after losing his cool, and could be benched tonight when the Sabres play the Los Angeles Kings in Marine Midland Arena (7:30, Empire, 104.1 FM). He was supposed to be benched Jan. 13 against St. Louis, but missed the game with the flu instead.

* Some players are unhappy with Ruff's treatment of center Derek Plante, the leading scorer two seasons ago and a player popular with teammates. Plante has been scratched for 19 of the team's 45 games this season. Plante requested a trade several weeks ago, and his $1 million salary rots away with his season. Sabres general manager Darcy Regier feels Plante provides needed depth.

* The organization's treatment of Donald Audette continues to rankle some players. His trade to Los Angeles for a second-round draft pick has left a feeling that management is unwilling to pay players their worth and is willing to accept little compensation for a proven player.

* Most players were happy that defenseman Alexei Zhitnik was selected to the NHL All-Star Game despite playing poorly most of the season -- but not all. One teammate described the pick as "an absolute joke."

So much for team unity.

"Guys get egos," forward Rob Ray said. "Sometimes there's a little selfishness about some guy scoring the goal or some guy getting too much ice time. That's when problems happen. People have to realize that everybody has a role on this team.

"It's very surprising, especially for how far we've come over the last few years. Maybe it's just something that guys didn't know that they were doing. Hopefully, they've been made aware now. Hopefully, the problem can be corrected without any major, drastic changes. You want to hope. It's all you can do now. Sit back and hope."

The Sabres had a players-only meeting a few weeks ago hoping to stop a slump before it became worse. That didn't work. They had a 30-minute session after losing to the Predators Thursday in a boofest that actually was worse than the score indicated. Even their leadership wasn't convinced everybody was listening.

"One thing we tried to make a strong point of is to worry about themselves and their own games, not look across at a guy who might be getting more ice time and be jealous of that," said Sabres captain Michael Peca, who has become more vocal and more frustrated of late.

"You wonder why it's (jealousy) there. You have to make sacrifices. You can't worry about personal achievement if you want to win a championship."

The situation has been growing increasingly worse since they took first place in the Eastern Conference on Dec. 26, making Ruff the World team coach at the All-Star Game. Since then, the team has gone kerplunk. The nose dive includes a 4-8-3 record over the last 4 1/2 weeks.

Grosek has not scored in 10 straight games. He has two goals in his last 22 contests. Fourth-line center Wayne Primeau has not scored in 17 games with limited ice time. Plante has not scored in 19 games. Geoff Sanderson has three goals in his last 32 games. Barnaby has three in his last 25. Dixon Ward has one in his last 11. Satan has one in his last eight.

Ruff is aware of the finger-pointing in the room.

"They need peer pressure to play well as a group, but they also have to care about each other. We can't have players that don't care about each other," he said. "A group of 24 guys in the dressing room isn't always going to get along. There are all kinds of situations that show that you care. That's peer pressure."

A trade appears inevitable, but nothing was imminent Thursday. Regier has been concerned about making a deal because it could disrupt team chemistry. But considering the way the team has played over the last month, therein lies the most obvious question: What chemistry?

"A big part of that is about our youth," Regier said. "It doesn't excuse us, but we are still young. We're going to go through some growing pains. I view this as something nobody likes, and we want to get through it as quickly as possible. But there's an opportunity to learn something here, too."

The Sabres can draw some good from their crisis. They play well in troubled times. Two years ago, when former coach Ted Nolan was feuding with management, the Sabres won the division. Last year, after a horrendous start, they reached the conference finals.

This season, their problems started when everything seemed to be going their way. They were winning. Things couldn't have been better.

Now, slightly more than a month later, the team is confused and disunited.

"It's like a marriage," Ward said. "It's always great after the honeymoon. The true test is when things aren't going well and how you react. You either get divorced or find a way to get through it. That's what we have to do -- either we find a way to get it done, or there's going to be a divorce."

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