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SANDERSON CONTINUES HIS SEARCH TO REGAIN LOST CONFIDENCE

Geoff Sanderson is one of the fastest players in the league. His slap shot is among the best. His nine-year career has been one mostly of production. Yet for reasons not even he can explain, he has almost no confidence.

Sanderson scored a goal last Thursday in a 2-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche, so at least he spent the Christmas break thinking positive thoughts about his play. The left winger's faith in himself is slowly making its way back, but you have to wonder why it has been absent for so long in the first place.

"That's the big question," Sanderson said. "I have no idea. Over time, you just lose it. Your game just changes. I had to change my game just to stay in the lineup. It's been tough."

Sanderson should be in the lineup tonight against the New Jersey Devils (7:30, Empire, 104.1 FM). The Sabres (15-15-5) will be trying to surpass the .500 mark for the first time this season. Buffalo has had three other cracks at getting over the hump this year and failed each time.

The Sabres might have played their best two-game stretch of the year in victories over the New York Rangers and the Avalanche. They have a difficult schedule that includes New Jersey, Detroit and Toronto twice over the next eight nights.

"It would be nice to be one-up in the win column over the loss column," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "It is a big step. We've got a tough stretch coming up. We're not kidding anybody."

Sanderson could help the Sabres reach that goal. He has five goals and six assists through 35 games this season after breaking an 18-game scoring slump against Colorado with a goal on a deflection. He no longer has a guaranteed spot in the lineup. He has spent some of the season on the fourth line. Does this sound like a man with 217 career goals, 205 career assists and a $1.5 million contract?

"Right now, it's just game-by-game survival," Sanderson said. "It's desperate. I want to play every game. When you start getting pulled out of the lineup, you start wondering. That's how I get myself in trouble. I go out on the ice trying to do something to get noticed, and I end up trying to do too much."

He had consecutive 40-goal seasons for Hartford from 1992-94 and followed that with two 30-goal seasons from 1995-97. The Whalers left Hartford for North Carolina in '97. Sanderson's confidence never made it to Carolina, Vancouver or Buffalo after he was twice traded. Two years ago, he had 11 goals. Last season, he had 12.

"It's mystifying to me (how Sanderson's confidence is lost)," said center Brian Holzinger, who has battled the same problem. "To use him as an example, he's a guy that comes in and scored 40 and 35 and now seems to have a difficult time getting to 20. How does that happen? I don't know. It's mind-boggling to a lot of us and I'm sure it is to him most of all."

One problem Sanderson has had is how the game is played these days compared to the early 1990s. Teams are much more committed to playing defense now than the free-wheeling style Sanderson played during his tenure with the Whalers.

Another is good goaltending. The current generation of goalies -- featuring such players as Ed Belfour of the Stars, Martin Brodeur of the Devils and Patrick Roy of the Avalanche, not to mention Buffalo's own Dominik Hasek -- might be the best ever in the NHL.

A third problem is Sanderson himself. He admittedly has been making poor decisions around the net all season. Last spring in the playoffs, when he was fighting for better position to the net, he was dangerous. Heck, he even suggested his game was that of a grinder at one point. But he hasn't been that way since.

He still shows a penchant for flying down the left wing and ripping a slap shot from the top of the circle. Goaltenders gobble them up. Sanderson continues to fire away like someone trying to wear down a brick wall with a tennis ball.

"When you have no confidence, you lose your patience on the ice," Sanderson said. "Everything had to be done really quickly. When I had the puck, I was rushing to get it off.

"You look at a guy like Miro (Satan, who had 40 goals last season). He has all the patience in the world. He doesn't have a panic level with the puck. He'll make a few moves and beat a guy before he shoots. When I don't have confidence, my panic level (decreases). I don't have the confidence to make those moves."

Sanderson has been playing with captain Michael Peca and Vaclav Varada lately, and all three have performed better than when Peca and Varada were with left winger Dixon Ward.

Sanderson still has the speed, which is always useful. He still has the booming shot, which is always helpful. His confidence seems to be returning from hiatus, which is essential. The goal against Colorado helped him immensely.

"It felt like trying to get that first goal of the season," he said. "You want to get that one out of the way, so you can get started. That's how I felt. All it is is a start. I had been taking baby steps toward it. I just want to keep it going."

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