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It really is tempting at times. There are moments when you're ready to rise up and declare yourself a believer, ready to concede that the Buffalo Sabres are a team of infinite possibility, capable of making a serious run at the Stanley Cup.

Then they turn in a performance like Sunday night's home loss to Montreal, and you wonder if they're something altogether different: a team that lifts your expectations one minute and dashes them the next. A team that can't seem to stand prosperity. A team of fatal flaws.

A tease.

"We're only teasing ourselves," defenseman Rhett Warrener said after the Sabres lost to the Canadiens, 4-3. "First place is great. But we can't be worried about first place when teams behind us are climbing and we're that close to being out of a playoff spot. We have to worry about getting the next two points and moving on."

That's the problem with this team. As soon as you think they're making a run at the top of the Northeast Division, they come apart. A couple of weeks ago, with first place squarely in their sights, they promptly lost to Columbus, Boston, Florida and Tampa Bay.

They seemed revived after the All-Star break, stringing together three straight wins to move within six points of Ottawa and two points of Toronto. They built a 3-1 lead halfway through Sunday's game. Then they got full of themselves, stopped playing, and gave it all away.

So with the regular season moving into its final third, you have to ask yourself. Is it really all a tease? Which is the real Buffalo Sabres? Are they the team that won three in a row after the break, or the team that lost five out of six before it?

Should we look at them as being six points out of first place, or only five points ahead of ninth-place Carolina? Are they a Cup contender, or a team that might achieve the unthinkable by missing the playoffs entirely?

Is Dominik Hasek close to his former brilliant self, or was this further evidence that he's well past his prime, just another decent goalie in a league full of them?

Is Miroslav Satan an impact scorer, a guy who can carry a team, perhaps worthy of the $3 million the Sabres refuse to pay Michael Peca? Or an overrated, soft, finesse player who has just one multiple-goal game all season?

Is Doug Gilmour saving it up for one final Cup run, or is he just about finished? Is Dave Andreychuk a winner, a difference-maker, or a numbers player just skating out the string?

Is Curtis Brown ever going to realize the promise of two years ago and become a standout? Or is he going to be content to coast through his career as an average center?

Is Alexei Zhitnik a $2.5 million defenseman, worthy of the most minutes of any skater on the team? Or with his team-low minus rating (minus-10), is he an overpaid liability, the Jerry Ostroski of NHL blueliners?

That's a lot of questions, a lot of teasers. I'm not sure the Sabres know just what they are, either. But when a team plays this game of two steps forward and two steps back, it's usually a sign that they don't believe in their hearts they're a legitimate championship contender.

So which team are they: the contender or the fraud?

"That's a good question," said coach Lindy Ruff, who was unusually subdued after watching Montreal win for the first time all year when trailing after two periods. "I don't think we've shown that consistency yet to be the team that can step up and win the division. Because tonight would have been a game you should have won."

Ruff has to take some of the blame for this one. With the Sabres playing their fourth game in six nights and coming off consecutive overtime contests, it would have been an ideal time to play Martin Biron in goal. But Ruff went with Hasek, who let in a bad first goal and was fairly ordinary overall.

Ruff has now played Hasek in 12 of the last 14 games. He insists on playing his veteran goalie. Yes, Hasek thrives on work. But the time is long overdue for the Sabres to give Biron a regular spot in the rotation. If the Sabres hope to make a run at the Cup, they need Hasek to be fresh.

In years past, Ruff played Hasek for long, uninterrupted stretches because the Sabres were fighting for playoff position and every game seemed critical. Apparently, he has the same mindset now. He's been saying all along that his goal is to win the division, not simply to make the playoffs.

So by playing Hasek this much, Ruff is making it clear that he believes his team is capable of making a run at the Cup. Maybe that's why he seemed so discouraged after the game, and why he bolted abruptly from his postgame news conference.

Maybe he's tired of the tease, too. Maybe, like the rest of us, he's beginning to wonder just how good they really are.

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