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He's been the best player on the ice among the Sabres for most of the season, but an interview with Stu Barnes, even under the best of circumstances, is like phoning the electronic teller at your bank.

"If you know your player's extension, you may press 1 now; for a list of our major penalties, press 2 now; for our record when scoring first, press 3 now."

Wednesday night against the Islanders, it was the best of circumstances. Barnes not only scored first for the Sabres in their 2-1 overtime victory, he unleased a chain of events that pumped up the Sabres' blood pressure and kept them from playing down to the level of another inferior opponent, which has been the case lately.

The Isles, frustrated by losing all three of their meetings with the Sabres this season, and scoring just one goal in the process, came out with the philosophy of "shoot the puck whenever you can and something favorable may happen."

One minute and seven seconds into the second period something went in Buffalo's favor.

Barnes attacked the goal, embarrassed Brad Isbister with some nice stick handling and flipped a backhander past Chris DiPietro, a brick wall for the Sabres most of the night.

This is Barnes' no-frills version: "The puck went off (Kenny) Jonsson's stick, Isbister thought he had a piece of it and then it jumped to me. I fanned on the shot, a weak backhand, but it went in."

As it turned out, Stu rescued this game, which he himself admitted was "a strange one," from sinking into Lake Lethargy. Minutes after his goal, with the Sabres short-handed, Barnes stole the puck and advanced once again on DiPietro. Isles defenseman Roman Hamrlik was beaten and compensated with a slashing penalty.

Then Zdeno Chara, the towering defenseman, was called for an obstruction penalty, delayed justice, since he obstructed outrageously on two earlier occasions. There was so much frustration on the New York bench that the ensuing free-for-all even brought the goalies into the brawl.

DiPietro skated all the way down the ice to get smacked by Rob Ray. Eric Boulton not only took on all comers in the melee, he was one of the principal causes of Islander turmoil.

Both goalies drew penalties for leaving the net, Boulton drew a hat trick of penalties, including a misconduct. Peace lasted just two minutes. When hostilities resumed, there were so many rumbles it resembled the start of an XFL football game.

When it was over, Barnes' breakaway had unleashed 11 Islanders' penalties and nine by his own side. It also stimulated the Sabres' interest for the rest of the game, right into Maxim Afinogenov's happy-ending overtime goal.

You might have thought it would be an occasion of glee for Barnes; or chagrin; or amusement.

Un uh. No emotion for our Stuie, whose permanently blackened eye, a left-handed trophy for his willingness to linger in the enemy crease, makes him look like hotel art of a forlorn puppy passed up at the SPCA.

Afterward, Barnes gave his usual "aw shucks" shrug and unleashed his usual postgame cliches: "Every winning team has to stick together. . . . Our game plan was to play as hard as we could. . . . Those were two teams out there just trying to win."

What he didn't say was that Buffalo couldn't afford another gaseous loss similar to what happened in Florida, when they underestimated both the inept Panthers and the clueless Tampa Bay Lightning. Until Barnes started the engine, the Sabres' performance bore no resemblance to the uncharacteristic explosion of Buffalo goals Tuesday night when they whacked the Rangers, 6-3.

Barnes has been around long enough to know that Sabre goal scorers are minimalists. The 2-1 game, win or lose, is the norm for his team. He'll be quietly happy with a slight edge. He doesn't expect nightly explosions.

"When I fanned on that backhand shot," he said of his goal, "it might have confused the goalie."

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