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ANDREYCHUK IS THANKFUL HE'S 'HOME'

The question was posed to Dave Andreychuk after practice Monday. Suppose God came down right now and offered you this choice: You can either go into the Hockey Hall of Fame or you can win the Sta . . .

"Oh, I'd take the Stanley Cup in a second," Andreychuk said before the two magic words had even been uttered. "I'd turn in a lot of things in for that. That's all I'm playing for. I'm not playing for anything else."

That is why he's here. He considers Buffalo his home. This is where he began his NHL career more than 18 years ago, and where he intends to settle down when he's finally done parking himself around creases and flipping pucks past confounded goaltenders.

In fact, he wanted to come back to Buffalo well before this. When he became a free agent two years ago, his first phone call was to the Sabres. There was no interest. Well, no problem. A year later, he was back on the free-agent market. Again, his first call went to Darcy Regier. This time, the Sabres, desperate for power-play help, bit.

The Sabres wanted a goal-scorer to shore up their sorry power play. Andreychuk wanted one thing - a chance for the Cup. The Sabres had talent. They had goaltending. They'd been there just two years before. He couldn't imagine a better arrangement.

"That's one of the reasons I'm back," he said. "If there's one place I'd like to win it, it'd be here."

He's a native Canadian, from Hamilton. But it was like coming home again. He got his start here as a 19-year-old. He played 11 seasons. His heart is in Buffalo. Andreychuk has a lot of affection for this place. Maybe if he helped bring the city a championship, people would love him back.

Andreychuk wasn't a beloved figure in his early years in Buffalo. It didn't matter that he scored all those goals, that he stood near the crease and absorbed a fearful pounding from opposing defensemen. The Sabres never won enough. They were never tough enough. They weren't gritty or blue-collar enough, like the Boston Bruins.

He was a convenient target for abuse in those days. It's always that way with a big guy. Andreychuk was 6-foot-4, 220 pounds. He didn't fight and he didn't win big games. Fair or not, he came to reflect what many Sabres fans despised in the teams of that era.

"I agree," he said. "And I think I put a lot of the pressure on myself. I felt bad that we didn't win in the playoffs in the early Eighties. We had great teams and we didn't win. It made me appreciate the playoffs more. It made me realize it's a little extra effort. It's playing together as a team."

He has played in three conference finals since leaving Buffalo. Months after he was traded to Toronto for Grant Fuhr, he scored 12 goals in one postseason for the Leafs. Still, his reputation as a soft playoff performer continues to shadow him.

Some of it is warranted. Still, you wonder what he might have done in different circumstances. Surrounded by players who better complemented his offensive skills, he might have been seen as a clutch player, a star. Put him on the Islanders and Mike Bossy on the Sabres and who knows how those two would be regarded today.

One thing is beyond dispute, though. Andreychuk is one of the greatest goal scorers ever to lace on skates. He now has 568 career goals, which ranks him 15th all-time, five goals behind Bossy. He is in lofty company now, where the Hall of Famers reside.

"I don't see how he can't be (in the Hall of Fame)," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. "You look at his stats, it's incredible. The fans here never thought he was tough enough. That's part of our town's mentality. If you're big, you've got to be a physical guy. I've seen him fight and that's not, uh, one of his fortes. But I don't know of anybody who is that fearless in front of the net."

Fearless? Dave Andreychuk? Fans screamed a lot of adjectives at him in the Aud, but that wasn't one of them.

"I just tried to go about my business day in and day out," he said. "It didn't bother me a lot. If you know me well, you know a lot doesn't affect me. I've played through a lot. Obviously, that's why I'm still playing."

It's hard to question the courage of a man who has stood in the slot for 18 seasons, taking the sort of relentless beating that drives lesser men out of hockey. He hasn't scored any of those 568 goals with his speed. He's done it by standing in front of the goal while opponents whacked away, like kids hitting the pinata at a birthday party.

Dominik Hasek says Andreychuk is the best he's ever seen at snapping rebounds into the net. He has uncanny hand-eye coordination. And he's still doing it at age 37, after 1,344 NHL games.

Ruff has brought Andreychuk along slowly this season, limiting his ice time so he will be at his best in the playoffs. Last season, he got off to a very hot start in Boston and then faded badly. During the last three weeks, his playing time has risen and so has his production.

Andreychuk has six goals and 10 points in his last nine games (he missed two games after hurting his knee). The power play has come back to life after an extended dry spell. He had his first two-goal game of the season Sunday. With 16 goals in an average of 12 minutes of ice time per game, he leads the team in goals per minute.

"I feel OK," he said. "(The knee pain) is still there and I think it's going to be there for awhile. But I'm happy I'm playing more, for sure. I'm getting more chances. Lindy's got a good point. I want to be ready in April. I want to be healthy in April."

That's all that matters now. April and beyond. He has never been to the Stanley Cup finals. He remembers watching the Sabres in 1999, feeling happy for Ruff, who was his roommate in his first training camp, and wishing he could be out there with the team, trying to win a Cup for Buffalo.

"I think he's glad he's back in Buffalo where he started his career," Hasek said. "I think he wants to prove something to the people here in the city."

Whatever happens, he has earned the respect and admiration of the fans here. After all these years, he deserves to be embraced for what he is, not condemned for what he could never be.

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