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RIGAS WATCHING WITH CONCERN AS SABRES TRY TO GET BACK ON COURSE

In early December, John Rigas began experiencing heaviness in his shoulder while exercising at his home in Coudersport, Pa. When the problem persisted for a week, the Sabres owner called his doctor and arranged for a stress test to determine the source of his trouble.

Then he started feeling better and called off the test.

"When I went to the office, my sons let me know in no uncertain terms that it was not a very smart thing to do," Rigas said Saturday. "They told me to get up and go take it. I failed the test and went right to the Mayo Clinic."

Rigas underwent an angioplasty to remove a 99 percent blockage in an artery. Considering his remarkably energetic nature, he figured he'd be back at full strength by the new year. But he's 74 years old now, and it wasn't until this past week that he started feeling like himself again.

Saturday, Rigas attended a game at Marine Midland Arena for the second time since his surgery. He didn't need a doctor to tell him the Sabres hadn't been themselves lately. No stress test was required to show that they were in their first crisis since he took over last season.

"I am concerned that the team has not performed in the last month," Rigas said. "That's been on my mind all along. I've talked to Darcy (Regier) and Lindy (Ruff) on many occasions regarding that matter. But I haven't had a sense until the players had a meeting (after the Nashville loss) that there was any dissension."

He knows now. The players downplayed the issue, and they took a step in the right direction with a 4-1 win over Los Angeles. But they are a troubled team. Individually, their problems might not seem that significant. Placed end to end, they reveal a team in danger of pulling apart and losing its competitive edge.

Michael Peca and Rob Ray have criticized their teammates for a lack of consistent effort. Michal Grosek wanted off Miroslav Satan's line because Satan was shooting too much. Some players have simmered over Ruff's coddling of Matthew Barnaby. Some have objected to his use of Derek Plante. Others were stung by the way Donald Audette was treated.

Dixon Ward, one of the team's more outspoken veterans, tried to minimize the issue Saturday. He said the real problem is the Sabres haven't played well, and accused the media of "blowing it out of proportion."

"Our mental approach is not quite the same," Ward said. "It's always been that way with our team. If we're a little bit off, we look bad."

It's not that simple. Too many people have privately acknowledged there's a problem. It is the worst such situation since the Bickering Bills fiasco of 1989. Call them the Simmering Sabres.

As Ward says, no team has 20 guys who love each other and admire the coach. Winning has a way of covering up strife. But the Sabres aren't the same unified group they were in the previous two years, when organizational turmoil gave them an external foe to rally against.

It's different now. The problem is internal. The Sabres are losing their innocence. If they don't turn it around soon, things could shatter completely.

"It is a little bit fragile," Ruff said. "You're right. You lose a few games; you've got some guys with no confidence. The key is to pick ourselves back up. We do it for one game, then we kind of fall off the scale. We do it for a game, then fall off again. But I think that's youth.

"You have to realize that we couldn't sustain the level we were at," Ruff said. "Realistically, we weren't going to finish the year with 120 points. If we finish with 95 to 100, we've had one hell of a year."

If they continue to struggle as they have over the last 16 games, they'll be fighting for their playoff lives soon. The Eastern Conference is very competitive. As of Saturday, Boston was two games over .500, but only ninth in the East.

Rigas confirmed that the team is expected to lose $15 million this year. Missing the playoffs after last year's run to the conference final would be a disaster.

"It would be," Rigas said. "That has occurred to me many times. We could be digging ourselves into a hole. The fans' anticipation for this year's team was high, and you can tell by the support. We've had sellout after sellout. So yes, we recognize that, as a franchise and a business, we could be facing a bit of a crisis.

"We don't want to get in that position," he said, "so we have to do something. Either the team has to improve its play right away, or something is going to have to happen."

That's the owner speaking. Rigas agreed the team might need a shake-up. He had high praise for the coaching staff, but said the team could use another veteran or two in the locker room.

"We recognize there's a couple young players we might have to give up," Rigas said, "because the window of opportunity for this team -- as long as we have Hasek -- is the next year or two. So we have to take advantage. That's an honest analysis."

The owner is new. The general manager and coach are in their second seasons. The players are mainly younger. But because of Hasek, there is a sense of urgency. Maybe this crisis had to occur, to remind people what exactly is at stake.

If the Sabres are going to make a run at the Cup, everyone from the owner on down has to come together now.

"It's a test for all of us," Ruff said. "Damn right it is. It's a character test. Do we mold everything back together, or do we continue to kind of spurt off in different directions? We're still a very good team. We're not the most talented, but when we play as a team and play for each other, we're still one of the top six or seven teams in the league."

It's time for them to take the test, just like their owner did, and find out once and for all what's in their hearts.

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