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SABRES STILL STANLEY-STEAMED ABOUT THE CUP THAT GOT AWAY

The thing is, you can't escape it. You see it on the walls of bars, on the rear bumpers of cars. You see it in stadiums and arenas, on Web sites and windows. You see it in your dreams.

"I was watching the Bills game the other night," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. "Christie was kicking a field goal and I saw someone holding up a 'No Goal' sign. I saw a 'No Goal' sign the other night at the rink in Hamilton."

Even if he wanted to get over it, people wouldn't let him. You're a fan, and you won't let it go. Three months later, you still feel the sting of Brett Hull's goal in the third overtime of Game Six of the Stanley Cup finals, which gave Dallas the Cup and sent you home early in the morning of June 20, feeling weary, angry and betrayed.

You never got over Scott Norwood's missed field goal in the Super Bowl, did you? And that was a clean miss, fair and square. There was no injustice, no grievance against the suits who run the league. But the Hull goal -- the NHL didn't even have the guts to review it. How do you put that behind you?

You're not alone, either. If you think million-dollar salaries make it easier to forget, think again.

"No," said Dixon Ward, shaking his head. "No. No. It gets harder.

"It gets worse and worse," he said. "And it'll be worse when our careers are over. If by some unfortunate circumstance, we never get another chance to win the Stanley Cup, it'll be terrible. We'll have to put it away at some point. But we'll never forget it, and we'll never forgive it."

Get over it? You should see the looks on their faces when you bring up Hull's goal. If I were Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, I'd wait until the year 3000 before getting near a Sabre.

"From a professional standpoint, you have to forget about it," said Michael Peca. "You can't let it plague you this year and for years to come. But from an emotional standpoint, when I'm away from the rink, it still pisses the hell out of me."

It even follows you into your house. One day in midsummer, Peca was watching TV with his wife, Kristin, when one of the Sabres promotional spots came on.

"At the end, they showed the clip," Peca said. "Ron MacLean is saying 'No goal! No goal!' I looked at Kris and said, 'Can you believe it really happened? Do you realize the position we were in?' And then it stings you again."

Geoff Sanderson used the same word. He said it stings in his chest when someone brings up Hull's goal. It stung when he saw NHL promos featuring the "defending champion" Dallas Stars. Or when he read about Dallas players in his hometown of Edmonton.

"The Edmonton Journal had stories about the Dallas players when they brought the Cup there," Sanderson said. "You read about them all summer -- what they're doing, how they feel, pictures with the Cup. It made me mad. No one remembers who was second."

Ruff was in Edmonton for a wedding in July. He hadn't thought about it in a while. Then someone told him about the "No Goal" Web site, the one the league is trying to shut down (Jeff Spring, who runs the site out of his comic book shop on Clinton Street, said he's still fighting).

"The more he talked, the more upset I got," Ruff said. "I started thinking, 'Geez, if only I'd done this, or if only I'd done that.' I went through the whole thing again and finally I said, 'I've got to let this go again.' "

How do you let something like that go? You try to look at it rationally, from a distance. Then you get worked up all over again. The fans understand. It's like a scab that keeps popping open.

The Sabres try to be diplomatic. They say they've put it behind them. Another long season lies ahead. It's Dominik Hasek's last year. In eight months, they might be back in the finals.

"You know what? I'm focused on this year," Ruff said. "Last year is over. To me it's a non-factor right now."

Come on, Lindy. No factor?

"If the truth be known, deep down I'm still smoking," Ruff said. "On the outside, I have to put it aside. But deep down, you know you only have so many chances. This is my 20th year in the league and I've had two chances at Lord Stanley. I think everybody realizes, especially the players who have been around a long time, that you only get so many chances at it. And that was one great chance."

But Hull scored, and the league didn't review it, and it was over. They brought out the Cup and gave it to the Stars, and you were in your cars before you even knew there was a controversy, that Hull's skate had been in the crease. Most of the Sabres didn't know it until later, either.

"We were so utterly exhausted at that point, we never really knew what happened," Ward said. "We were sitting on the bench and we never knew it was even close to being a controversial goal. But in the locker room, when we heard the coaches were watching on TV and it was clearly a no goal, at that point it's too late.

"I wish I would have known earlier," he said, "because we never would have left the ice."

Saturday night, they skate back out for a new season. It's time to put it behind them. They know that. But don't think they've forgotten. In a way, they never left the ice that night. A part of them wants to skate back out for the rest of the third overtime, to do the impossible.

To finish Game Six.

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