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NO ESCAPE IN SIGHT AS REELING SABRES FALL TO 'CANES

Nine days ago, the Sabres wanted to get away from Buffalo. Away from booing fans. Away from the negativity surrounding their season. Just away. Saturday, they wanted to be back home.

Obviously, they don't know where to turn at this point in the season. It's a product of losing. The confidence disappears and the proverbial noose tightens. Primary goals become clouded and attitudes slowly change.

The Sabres were rubbed out for a third straight game Saturday, this time by the Carolina Hurricanes, who scored three power-play goals en route to a 4-1 victory before 16,343 fans in the new Sports and Entertainment Arena.

"I thought we already hit rock bottom," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "If you look at the road trip, we took another level off rock bottom."

Buffalo slipped to 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings after being surpassed by Carolina, which snapped a five-game losing streak in Saturday's matinee. The Sabres' next game is Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Marine Midland Arena.

Gary Roberts scored two goals to lead the Hurricanes. Ron Francis and Sami Kapanen also scored and each added one assist. Michael Peca scored for the Sabres with 1:18 remaining. It was his first goal in 11 games and his second in his last 27 contests.

So, in a week in which the Sabres thought they could turn around their season, they finished with a 1-3 record and three straight losses. They were tired after a rough travel schedule that included twice landing after 4 a.m. EST. They arrived in North Carolina just 15 hours before faceoff.

"Three weeks ago, we thought we were in a slump," defenseman James Patrick said. "We've done nothing to get out of it. Obviously, things are worse."

The Sabres dropped to 18-24-6 this season. Last year, they had not suffered 24 losses until Game 70. They are six games under .500 for the first time since the 1995-96 season, the last time they missed the playoffs.

That possibility is facing them again. Only a few months ago, people believed they wouldchallenge for the Stanley Cup this season. Dominik Hasek's injury has exposed them as a questionable contender. Now, 10th place would be an improvement.

It's beyond facing criticism at this point. The Sabres are simply one sorry team right now.

"We didn't get any lower than we were before (during this season)," Peca said. "We just have the same rocks falling on our heads. All you can do is hold on the umbrella strong and wait until we battle out of it."

Buffalo lost Saturday's game in the second period. The Sabres had held the Hurricanes to just six shots through the first 32 1/2 minutes before Francis scored on the seventh and Kapanen converted the ninth, just 1:31 apart. Carolina, which scored on three of its five power plays, had a 4-0 lead after Roberts went to work.

The Sabres were sunk.

"The goals took the wind right out of us," Ruff said. "That's when we have to hunker down, when our leaders have to say, 'I want to play.' Nobody is going to feel sorry for us."

Francis' goal came with a bit of fortune. He was shooting from a bad angle at the bottom of the right circle when the puck bounced off Richard Smehlik's stick and slipped behind Martin Biron. Kapanen scored on a backhander in the slot after getting a pass from Francis.

The Sabres did not have many scoring opportunities before Peca ruined Arturs Irbe's bid for a shutout. The power play was virtually nonexistent again. The penalty-killing unit was off its game. It's not difficult finding reasons for their 24th loss.

Home has not been kind lately for the Sabres. Solutions were not found on the road. They have 34 games left in the regular season. Where do they go from here?

"It's going to get harder," winger Dixon Ward said. "We have to dig our way out. Nobody is going to do it for us. It's do-or-die, playoff hockey from here on out. There are no nights off or excuses. We have to get it done or we're going to be on the outside looking in when it's over."

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