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PECA SENSES HE'S ON THE VERGE OF BREAKOUT

Michael Peca was standing in the visitors' dressing room last weekend explaining the Sabres' third straight loss when he tugged his tie into position, picked up his head and confidently said he was about to start scoring again.

It was a bold prediction given his circumstances this season. He had one goal in his previous 27 games. His season had been one giant, inexplicable slumpfest and the meaningless goal he scored against the Carolina Hurricanes about 30 minutes earlier provided only a hint he had escaped misery.

But anyone who heard him could sense he was expressing more than professional optimism. Captain Crunch sounded like he was onto something. It was almost like he knew more goals were coming in the near future.

"I don't know, it's one of those weird things," Peca said. "You feel better physically. When you feel better physically, it seems like a cloud lifts from your brain. All of a sudden, you're able to do things and see things a lot better."

Peca has now scored in the last two games, which is no big deal unless you realize that he hasn't accomplished the feat since October. Neither goal was spectacular, but they were signs his game is getting back in order going into tonight's game against the Ottawa Senators (7, Empire, Radio 104.1 FM) in Marine Midland Arena.

He has been playing much better over the last five games since he and Dixon Ward begged coach Lindy Ruff to reunite them on the same line with Vaclav Varada. Peca is skating better and hitting more. He's playing better defense in a defined role. He has been more productive. His confidence has soared.

"It's starting to come back," he said. "Hopefully, I can continue to get some chances, capitalize on them and continue to build from here. It's nice now to feel really good and a lot more confident knowing that I'm going to start getting on the board."

The Peca-Ward-Varada line should be intact tonight. Peca's head is now clear. Ward's head, also clouded for part of the season, is clear. Varada's head was cleared by doctors Thursday, nine days after Alexei Zhitnik's slap shot was dislodged from his left ear. It all starts with Peca.

"I've said all along that Pecs is the key to making our line go," Ward said. "That's not to put the burden on him, but the better he plays, the better we play. When he's doing the things he does best, it allows myself and Varada to play our best, which is in a support role."

It was in the playoffs against these very Senators last season that Peca reached the pinnacle of his NHL career. His job was to shut down Ottawa star Alexei Yashin. Peca didn't just shut down Yashin, he shut him out. Peca had a goal and five assists in the Buffalo sweep. The irony was that Ottawa couldn't stop him.

Peca hasn't been the same player since that series. He has eight goals and 14 assists and a plus-minus ratio of minus-6 through 49 games this season. He had 27 goals and 29 assists and was plus-7 while defending the top lines last season, the best of his career.

"I couldn't figure it out," Peca said. "The first 10 games of the season, I had as many scoring chances as I had when I was hot last year. The puck wasn't going in. It's just a snowball of frustration that builds up. You're in a funk and you're searching for reasons why. In the time it takes to find out why, five more games have slipped by. You just have to start over, start fresh."

The Sabres, who have scored just 13 goals in their last seven games, have been waiting for Peca's fresh start. He had a seven-game slump and two five-game slumps in which he did not record a point. That's more than a third of this season without an offensive contribution from their captain.

There were concerns he was being smothered under the pressure of playing for a new contract, an argument he dismissed Thursday. Some wondered whether he was feeling pressure about the prospect of fatherhood. His wife, Kristin, is expecting their first child in April. If anything, Peca said, the idea of becoming a parent relieved him of the pressure of playing hockey.

"It goes back to early in the season when he said he just didn't feel right," Ruff said. "He didn't have the pop and the drive. One time, he even had blood tests done. If you talk to any player, at times in their career, for a month or two months, they just have no 'get up and go.'

"You can't explain it," Ruff said. "Maybe his tank was on empty. Maybe he never recovered (from the playoffs). He has tried hard to work his way through it. We've tried working him harder. We've tried backing off. You have to try everything. He seems to be coming around. He seems to have more pop in his stride."

Star goalie Dominik Hasek could be back by next week. He went through another workout with the Sabres Thursday and felt fine afterward. Peca appears to be making his way back with enough time remaining for the Sabres to make a move in the standings.

The Senators should provide a good test. Ottawa should also serve as a reminder for Peca about how well he's capable of playing. Like he said, he feels more goals are coming. And it seems his attitude is spreading around the dressing room.

"We're excited that we have that feeling back," Ward said. "Dom will be back soon. I can feel some hope for the future. The only thing any team needs is hope. With hope, you can do anything. It's when you don't have hope that you're dead."

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