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DEVILS COMMAND THE DRIVER'S SEAT IN EASY VICTORY OVER LISTLESS SABRES

Maybe Sabres coach Lindy Ruff should have taken his team on another bus ride. The one through Harlem last week seemed to work. And Newark wasn't that far away. They could have used another reality check.

Every time it seems the defending Eastern Conference champions are back for good, they take one giant step backward. The latest was a 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Monday night that dropped the Sabres one game under .500.

The game was decided so early that the 16,248 fans in Continental Airlines Arena, starved for action, were doing the wave, which went out of style roughly the same time as break dancing.

New Jersey winger Petr Sykora scored twice, the second into an empty net with six seconds remaining. John Madden and Patrik Elias also scored for the Devils, who outshot their opponent for the 12th straight game. Geoff Sanderson broke up Martin Brodeur's shutout with 9:49 left when he scored on a 25-foot slap shot.

Buffalo's goal all year has been to move a game over .500. The Sabres lost the season opener. Three times since, they have worked back to even and all three times they went home with a loss in the next game. They return home for tonight's game against the Detroit Red Wings.

The Devils were primed for defeat considering the following: They went into the game with an 0-8 record in the second half of back-to-back sets this season. They were playing their fourth game in six nights. The two days off were designated for the Christmas break, so they couldn't even practice.

Not that they needed practice against the Sabres, who were absent for the first two periods and buried in a hole too deep to come back in the third.

"When we don't put forth the effort it's pretty obvious and we didn't put forth the effort," defenseman Rhett Warrener said. "We were lucky to be that close."

Everything the Sabres did to right themselves during the two-game winning streak before Christmas somehow was lost in the eggnog. Ruff took them on a bus ride through New York City's rough streets last week and they responded with a 3-1 win over the New York Rangers. This time they went nowhere.

Martin Biron allowed three goals on 23 shots before Ruff summoned Dwayne Roloson from the bench. The result was hardly Biron's fault. He was left alone so much through the first two periods it seemed the Sabres were trying to avoid him.

"Marty made five or six great saves just to keep us in the hockey game," Ruff said. "He played great for us."

The most remarkable thing about the Sabres' three-goal deficit going into the third period was that it wasn't six or seven. The Sabres gave up enough odd-man rushes in the second period alone to be down by at least a half-dozen.

Biron was back in the Buffalo crease clinging to the team life preserver, but there was little doubt the Sabres would eventually sink under the all weight of the Devils' attack. New Jersey outshot Buffalo, 23-11, through the first two periods.

The Sabres produced seven shots through the first 31 minutes, and the frustration was mounting. Rob Ray was banished after the second period after bawling out the officials as the Sabres went into the dressing room. Then he bawled out his teammates.

Madden delivered the most serious blow when he scored shorthanded with 7:43 remaining in the second period. Jason Woolley was trying to jump-start the Sabres' woeful power play when his pass bounced off Madden's shin pad. Madden beat Woolley to the loose puck, caught Biron leaning and wristed a shot into the open side for a 2-0 lead.

"It's the worst feeling in the world," Woolley said. "It's embarrassing. I take all the credit for screwing up. I blew it."

The Sabres weren't finished turning over the puck. Elias scored on a three-on-two break after Miroslav Satan gave it away in the New Jersey zone with about 3 1/3 minutes left in the period. Jason Arnott eventually left a pass for Elias, who beat Biron with a high wrist shot from just inside the left circle.

New Jersey had three breakaways, at least two two-on-one-breaks and the three-on-two break that put them in control, 3-0, for the final 20 minutes.

The Sabres should have known they were in for a long night when Satan missed a wide-open net off Woolley's rebound midway through the second period with Buffalo on the power play.

Defenseman Cory Sarich committed the first two big blunders of the game on Sykora's goal, which opened the scoring with about seven minutes left in the first period.

The first error came when Sarich misplayed the puck near the blue line after Curtis Brown won a faceoff in the New Jersey zone. He then coughed up the puck near center ice. Sykora broke free, faked a shot with his forehand and lifted a backhander into the top corner.

"It's frustrating," Sarich said. "You don't want to make that mistake and there's nothing you can do. As a young guy, you don't want to make that mistake. It really stands out."