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SABRES HOPE TO FATTEN UP ON RANGERS

Postseason hope remains for the New York Rangers, but it's slim at best.

So slim that if hope were to put on pajamas they would have one pinstripe.

The Buffalo Sabres' playoff chances are a tad fatter than that. Yet they're not comfortably plump by any stretch.

While the Sabres passed on opportunities to feast on lesser competition before the All-Star break, that buffet line resumes along with the season tonight at 7 against the anemic Rangers in Madison Square Garden (7; Empire; 107.7, 1330).

The Sabres arrived in New York at 9 this morning, about 12 hours later than scheduled. Their flight Monday was delayed by a storm along the Eastern seaboard.

All-Star goaltender Dominik Hasek and winger Dave Andreychuk, who also attended the festivities in Denver, weren't with the Sabres Monday. They were to join the team today in New York.

The Rangers haven't made the playoffs since 1997. With 29 games remaining, they are seven games under .500 and in 10th place in the Eastern Conference with 46 points, nine behind the Boston Bruins for the eighth and final playoff slot. The Carolina Hurricanes are in ninth place with 54 points.

The Sabres were within striking distance of first place mere weeks ago, but they have fallen to seventh place with 56 points.

"We're in a situation right now where we're in a pack of seven, eight and nine," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "That's a tough pack to be in. But if we take care of our games in hand, we're in good shape again."

The Sabres can beef up with upcoming home games against the New York Islanders on Wednesday and the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday -- with a visit to the first-place Ottawa Senators sandwiched on Saturday. Also on the menu is a home-and-home series with Atlanta next week.

Beating such light fare, however, has proven frustratingly difficult for Buffalo. The Sabres entered the break having dropped five of six games, including losses to the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Buffalo's offense has struggled mightily. The last time it scored more than two goals was a 3-1 victory over Tampa Bay on Jan. 16, despite averaging 31 shots a game since then. Top scorer J.P. Dumont hasn't netted a goal in 18 games, a streak that predates Christmas. The power play is barely breathing.

The Rangers, having allowed a league-high 188 goals, could be the medicine the doctor ordered. Then again, so were the Blue Jackets, Panthers and Lightning; only the Sabres failed to pick up their prescriptions.

"Offensively they've been very good and defensively they've been very poor," Ruff said of the Rangers. "There's some other teams I thought we could play better offensively against. Tampa and Florida were two of them, but we didn't get it done.

"Usually down the stretch the scores get lower. They probably can't get much lower for us."

The Rangers' entire season has been a slump. The possible low point came last week at the Garden in a 7-2 loss to the Thrashers.

The lone bright spots have been right winger Theo Fleury (29 goals, 38 assists) and defenseman Brian Leetch (14 goals, 43 assists).

"The psyche of this team is fragile," Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather said before the All-Star break. "We get behind for one reason or another and I think they start pressing. And there haven't been many games lately that we've had the lead."

Sather recently estimated the Blueshirts will need at least 84 points to reach the playoffs. Coach Ron Lowe set the towering goal of winning 20 of their last 30 games.

"Nobody can ever look at the schedule and tell us how many games we're going to have to win," said Rangers captain Mark Messier, who after an age-defying hot start hasn't scored a goal in 18 games. "That's a self-defeating attitude."

The Rangers' woes are a head-scratcher to Sabres center Stu Barnes, especially when he stops to consider New York's roster is dotted with names like Messier, Fleury, Leetch, Petr Nedved and Mike Richter.

"That's a team that has an unbelievable amount of talent," Barnes said. "They have so many players -- you can just go down the list. There are a lot of superstars. We need to be prepared. . . . They're a very, very dangerous club."

But are the Rangers hungry? Are the Sabres?

"The positive thing in this room is we know where we're at," Barnes said. "We know we need to play better and we need to improve. Everybody understands that.

"In a couple months we're going to be talking about how well we're playing and not these struggles."

BUFFALO SABRES
Who's hot: C Stu Barnes has two goals in his past three games and four in his past eight
Record last 5: 1-4
Power play: 34 of 226 (15.0%)
Penalty killing: 25 of 202 (87.6%)
Injuries: C Denis Hamel (knee, out for season), C Curtis Brown (back spasms)
Fast fact: Have not allowed a power-play goal in nine games

NEW YORK RANGERS
Who's hot: RW Theo Fleury had two goals and an assist in the All-Star game
Record last 5: 1-4
Power play: 43 of 245 (17.6%)
Penalty killing: 50 of 256 (80.5%)
Injuries: RW Valeri Kamensky (bruised kidney), D Rich Pilon (foot), C Tim Taylor (groin)
Fast fact: C Mark Messier hasn't scored a goal in 18 games

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