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For the past two years, Bud Light has run a hockey advertising campaign featuring the Bubble Boys. The TV spots documented the 3-inch-tall players -- more commonly found under the dome of the popular barroom table game -- and their fruitless search for NHL acceptance.

The Buffalo Sabres have their own version of the Bubble Boys in training camp. Coach Lindy Ruff, however, insisted his life-sized prospects have a realistic shot of making the Sabres' opening-night lineup.

The Sabres sent 26 players to their four-day training camp excursion in North Charleston, S.C., but only 23 will make the final roster.

The players on the bubble are goaltender Mika Noronen, defenseman Brian Campbell and forwards Norm Milley, Taylor Pyatt, and Chris Taylor. All except Pyatt spent most of last season with the Rochester Americans. Pyatt and Tim Connolly came to the Sabres from the New York Islanders in the Michael Peca trade.

"They've all got a legitimate chance," Ruff said. "It's no secret one or two top guys from Rochester were going to challenge for a spot, and you've got the three additions (Connolly, Pyatt and Slava Kozlov).

"Basically, five guys are challenging for a couple spots. Those are the guys you're taking a hard look at."

The Sabres won't make any knee-jerk decisions on their Bubble Boys. No one will play his way onto the roster or off it in South Carolina, where the emphasis is more on implementing the foundations of Ruff's systems and team bonding.

The true on-ice tests will start this weekend, when the Sabres open their preseason schedule with home games against the Ottawa Senators Friday at 7 p.m. and the Columbus Blue Jackets Saturday at 6 p.m.

"The preseason games," Ruff said, "are really the time when you can open some eyes, when you say 'This guy's ready,' or 'He looks like he can overtake somebody in our lineup.' "

Of all the Bubble Boys, Campbell appears to have the best shot of making the 23-man roster. Ruff has spoken highly of the mobile defenseman throughout the early days of camp.

The odds of either Milley or Pyatt making the team increase each day that unrestricted free agent forward Erik Rasmussen remains unsigned and is not in camp.

Milley, 21, is a two-time junior 52-goal scorer. In his first pro season he recorded 20 goals and 27 assists in 77 games with Rochester.

Pyatt, 20, played 78 games as a rookie for the New York Islanders, recording four goals and 14 assists. The day Buffalo acquired Pyatt, however, Ruff indicated the winger had been rushed to the NHL and would benefit from additional grooming in the minors.

Taylor, a 29-year-old center, would have to beat out the likes of Connolly, Curtis Brown, Chris Gratton and Denis Hamel to stick. Taylor was with the Sabres for 31 games last season, but was a healthy scratch for 21 of them. During his nine professional seasons Taylor has only four goals and 12 assists in 84 NHL games.

The goaltending duties are Martin Biron's to lose, and the Sabres have said they would rather have Noronen playing in Rochester than sitting on the bench. That job belongs to veteran Bob Essensa.

The Sabres held an intrasquad scrimmage Tuesday night at the Ice Palace. It was the first scrimmage since the team was whittled down from the 56 players who skated last week in St. Catharines, Ont.

They will practice again today and return home Thursday to work out at HSBC Arena.

The main on-ice points Ruff wanted to cover in South Carolina were basic defensive philosophy and breakouts, including on the power play.

"I think that's just a jump start to put us in the right frame of mind," Ruff said. "We're establishing a breakout, and we want to use and try different lines, especially looking at our new personnel."

Ruff has been using the following lines in South Carolina: Connolly between Barnes and Miroslav Satan; Brown between J.P. Dumont and Maxim Afinogenov; Gratton between Kozlov and Vaclav Varada; Taylor between Eric Boulton and Rob Ray; Hamel between Pyatt and Milley.

Rasmussen remained unsigned Tuesday, although Buffalo General Manager Darcy Regier and agent Brian Lawton continue to negotiate. The Sabres prefer a one- or two-year deal, although a three-year pact has been discussed. Rasmussen is the Sabres' only player not under contract.

The Sabres didn't practice Tuesday morning, instead taking part in various team-building exercises designed to instill trust and teamwork, a process in which many corporations have their employees partake.

One familiar drill asked players to close their eyes and fall backward, having faith teammates would catch them. They went through other drills in which two teams competed by analyzing a problem and then executing the solution as a unit.

Ruff wasn't involved in the exercises, but he gained valuable insight by observing the emergence of character in certain players.

"You split off into two teams, and you watch who grabs the bull by the horns," Ruff said. "There was no way to succeed in some of these exercises unless everybody chips in and helps each other. Some guys jump right in and do the grunt work, and others come out as leaders."


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