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OK, OK, let's all just calm down.

Yes, the Buffalo Sabres blew a 3-1 lead Sunday night. Yes, they suffered a third-period brain cramp on defense, and then got some questionable goaltending to boot.

Yes, they lost, 4-3. And yes, the team on the other side of the ice was the French-Canadian laughingstock known as the Montreal Canadiens.

But it was just one game, so it might not have been proof positive that the Sabres have returned to their pre-All-Star form. It might not have been a harbinger of careless defense to come, or the end of Dominik Hasek's ability to stop the puck. It might just have been an off-night, when Buffalo made a few uncharacteristic mistakes and Montreal played a little better than usual. It looked bad, yes -- but it was just one game.

"Let's not come in here looking for earthquakes and tornadoes, because I know that's what everybody wants to hear," forward Curtis Brown said. "If you look at the micro instead of the macro, you can always pinpoint a problem."

Or, in backup goalie Martin Biron's words: "There's going to be some bad games against bad teams."

The Sabres, who play in Atlanta tonight (7:30, Empire, 107.7 & 1330), aren't taking the letdown lightly; they just aren't ready to abandon the confidence they built up in three straight wins -- two in overtime -- since the All-Star break. Any team with three 37-year-old veterans on the roster has to know better than to throw up its collective hands in dismay after one loss.

Of course, head coach Lindy Ruff was less than ebullient after Monday's optional skate. Ruff, who ran the team's film session but never took the ice, said all the things one would expect a coach to say after a loss to the hapless Habs.

"The (2-1 OT win) against Ottawa basically means nothing when you go in the next night and lose to Montreal," he said. "When you play that poor defensively, you're going to lose hockey games."

But even Ruff seemed less panicky than irked. His team had Sunday's game won, and they let it get away; a terrible team would never have led to begin with, and a chronically sloppy one would not have beaten Northeast Division-leading Ottawa the night before.

So the Sabres can look at the Montreal game as a one-time lapse, not as a continuation of their 1-5 skid into February. They can, that is, unless they repeat the performance tonight in Atlanta. The Thrashers look an awful lot like the Canadiens -- and the Lightning, Panthers and Blue Jackets, who all victimized the Sabres during their January doldrums. Atlanta has a 17-28-9-2 record and virtually no shot at the playoffs, which might be what scares Ruff most.

"The teams that are out of the picture right now have nothing to lose," he said. "If you look at the likes of some of the teams we've lost to, obviously we are worried about (tonight's) game."

The Thrashers have only one line with any real punch: the trio of Ray Ferraro (57 points), Donald Audette (63 points) and Andrew Brunette (44 points). Of the players likely to be in tonight's lineup, only Audette and Brunette are in the black in terms of plus-minus.

The Thrashers are so bad that they are reduced to crowing in their pregame media notes that -- Czech it out! -- Atlanta leads the league in players from the Czech Republic with six (Jiri Slegr, Milan Hnilicka, newly-acquired forward Ladislav Kohn and IR staples Petr Buzek, Frantisek Kaberle and Patrik Stefan).

The two-game series against the Thrashers, who come to HSBC Arena Thursday, should be an easy four points for the Sabres. If Buffalo lets these games get away, then the time for panic might be at hand -- especially since they are coming up on a two-week stretch that includes two games each against New Jersey and Ottawa and one game each against Phoenix, Philadelphia, Colorado and Dallas.

Who's hot: Maxim Afinogenov scored consecutive OT game-winners Wednesday and Saturday, against the Islanders and Senators.

Record last 5: 3-2-0-0
Power play: 36 of 244 (14.8%)
Penalty killing: 28 of 216 (87.0%)
Injuries: Denis Hamel (knee surgery), Stu Barnes (strained muscle in chest).

Fast fact: NHL's fifth-worst road power play (14 goals in 120 opportunities).

Who's hot: Per Svartvadet, three goals in past two games.

Record last 5: 1-4-0-0
Power play: 40 of 270 (14.8%)
Penalty killing: 56 of 272 (79.4%)
Injuries: Gord Murphy (thumb), Yannick Tremblay (shoulder), Steve Staios (groin), Yves Sarault (shoulder), Patrik Stefan (groin), Frantisek Kaberle (broken foot), Hnat Domenichelli (groin), Andreas Karlsson (hip flexor), Adam Burt (back surgery), Petr Buzek (concussion).

Fast fact: NHL's second-worst penalty kill.

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