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FORGET 'NO GOAL,' NOW IT'S A MATTER OF NO HEART, NO SOUL

The saddest part was listening to them rationalize afterward. Rob Ray took comfort in the fact that they had "salvaged something" by winning the third period. Michael Peca didn't betray a trace of embarrassment or anger. Lindy Ruff said at least his team hadn't quit and had generated scoring chances.

Maybe that's the problem with this year's Sabres. They're too accepting of defeat, too willing to play to a lesser standard. They act like some average team on the rise, instead of a team that came within two games of winning the Stanley Cup last June.

But Tuesday night's 7-2 loss to Detroit was an abject disgrace. I don't care how many shots they had, or how many breaks the Red Wings got. In the final home game of the millennium, the Sabres turned in one of the shabbiest home performances in franchise history.

When things started going against them early in the second period, they went completely to pieces, giving up four goals in a span of 1:55. They nearly got booed off the ice and they deserved every bit of it.

On back-to-back nights, at New Jersey and here against Detroit, they had a chance to measure themselves against the NHL's top teams and show they belonged among the league's elite. Instead, they showed how far away they really are.

The Cup final is a distant memory. This is a team suffocating from complacency, inferior talent and a lack of commitment. It goes right to the top, to John Rigas, who promised them the tools to finish the job and has yet to follow through.

Meanwhile, the Sabres act as if they can simply flick a switch when the playoffs arrive, the way they did in the last two postseasons. Why kill yourself in December when the real season doesn't come until April and May, especially when management shows its gratitude by playing hardball at contract time?

Of course, you can hardly blame management for trying to hold down salaries after watching this team struggle. It becomes clearer with each passing game that many of the Sabres aren't as good as they -- or their beloved agents -- believe they are.

Vaclav Varada has one goal in his last 65 regular-season games. Brian Holzinger hasn't scored since Nov. 24. Wayne Primeau had a number of glorious chances Tuesday, and missed them all, as usual. Alexei Zhitnik has been coasting all year, and at some point Ruff has to stop treating him with kid gloves.

Peca has been just another player since last May. He's not hitting people and he's not scoring. He's playing for a contract and playing poorly, and it's hard to be a leader under those circumstances.

"Sometimes it's hard to get respect from your teammates as a young captain," he said. "When you're struggling on the ice and start saying things, guys tend to shrug their shoulders. Why should they listen to you when you're not doing it yourself?"

Whatever the reason, the Sabres are a fragile team right now, crying out for veteran leadership. When adversity struck in the second period, they responded with panic and resignation, like a team that knew it was up against a superior foe.

They played like a mediocre team, which is precisely what they've been during the regular season in the last calendar year. One year ago to the day, on Dec. 28, they were first in the Eastern Conference. Then they lost to the Devils here, 7-4, to begin the slide that dropped them to seventh in the conference by season's end.

From Dec. 28, 1998, through the Detroit loss, this is the Sabres' regular-season record: 33-39-17. Granted, they made an unforgettable run to the Cup final. But if you're paying big bucks for those seats in the arena, you have to be wondering what happened to those playoff Sabres, and which is the real team.

The absence of Dominik Hasek is a big part of it, but it might be time to shake things up. Clearly, Ruff is beginning to think so. Twice Tuesday, he made a reference to the team's talent level and agreed it might be time to consider a trade.

"It's got to be the talent level that gets you the goals," he said.

They're averaging 2.4 goals a game. The power play is the worst in the league. Peca and Ray said the team had to hit bottom at some point. Things are bound to get better. Maybe a new year, a new century, a new millennium, will get them turned around.

Then again, maybe what they need is new players.