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BOULTON ADDS PUNCH IN SABRES' VICTORY

So what should they be nicknamed? The Main Street Maulers? The Perry Pounders? Maybe HSBC Arena could undergo another name change. Call it the School of Hard Knox.

The Buffalo Sabres are only three games into the preseason but already it's clear that coach Lindy Ruff is committed to fielding a rough-and-tumble, change-of-pace fourth line this season. Equally clear is that Eric Boulton, a winger who piled up 276 penalty minutes to go with his two goals in Rochester last year, will extend his Fists Across America Tour for however long it takes him to earn a spot in the National Hockey League.

The Sabres received a variety of contributions from young players in Wednesday night's 2-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks before a crowd of about 10,000. Defenseman Brian Campbell made a pretty play from the point to set up a power-play goal by Miroslav Satan. Right wing J.P. Dumont showed poise beyond his 22 years in cutting through the slot and sizzling a backhander top shelf for his second goal of the preseason. Boulton? He accepted an invitation to have it out with Bob Probert, the legendary brawler who, at age 35, still can churn the windmill.

"He actually pushed me off the draw and asked me to fight," said Boulton, who goes 6-foot-1, 215 pounds. "I thought he'd be sleeping all night. Because he's been around a while, I didn't think he'd want to mix it up in the exhibition. It surprised me a little bit when he came after me."

Two of the three rinkside judges scored it a draw. The other judge, perhaps swayed by reputation, had it 10-9, Probert.

This fight had everything but smoke, mirrors and tag-team partners jumping into the fray with chairs cocked overhead. The gloves went down and the two circled like wrestlers in search of an opening. Once the punches came, they came fast and furious. At one point, Boulton appeared in danger of being transformed into a bobbing head doll. Just as quickly, he countered with consecutive uppercuts, winning back lost ground. The fight went on, and on, until both bodies hit the ice, with Boulton on top.

"I think every fight I've ever seen him fight is a marathon," Boulton said. "I don't mind the marathons either. That's what guys know me for, long fights. So that was fine with me.

"When you fight a guy like Bob Probert, you don't want to go toe-to-toe with a big guy like that. So tie him up, take a little power away from his punches, wear him out a little bit. Just do the best you can and try to survive."

Wasn't it at the end of last year that players such as Rob Ray, the Sabres' designated fighting machine during the last 10 seasons, were considered endangered species? The Sabres weren't sure they wanted him back. What use would they have for him? They finally signed him when he agreed to a pay cut.

Now there's a chance the Sabres might carry not one, but two Ray-types on their roster. Ray and Boulton have dressed for all three preseason games. Boulton has fought in all three preseason games. Ruff likes what he's seeing.

"I think you've got to understand what I'm thinking of putting those two guys in every game," Ruff said. "And I'm going to continue to look at; we've been undefeated with that type of scenario.

"Obviously, Eric has done a very good job and he's forcing us into a decision that we're going to have a tough time making. It's played out the scenario that I mentioned earlier, to have a line that can go out and stir it up. They played very well the first few games. Honestly, it's a line you don't expect a lot of offense out of but they've been getting their chances and have provided some pretty good energy."

Ray watches Boulton with heartfelt admiration. He was once in the same position, trying to punch his way into a roster spot.

"It's a very tough thing to do because you're expected to go out there and do that all the time," Ray said. "That's your role and that's what you're expected to do so you've got to go and do it every night and prove that you're willing to do it and can do it. It worked for me and that's what most (tough) guys do to get to that point, and it's not a fun job."

If Ruff remains committed to having a fourth line capable of delivering a spark, Ray's all for having someone riding alongside.

As Ray so appropriately phrased it, "Having a 1-2 punch is a lot better than having one single guy."

Boulton, 24, is with him on that one. Fighting's a tough way to earn a roster spot. It's an even tougher way to keep a roster spot. Boulton's not kidding when he says, "It's definitely the hardest on your face."

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