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SABRES SEEK IMPROVED POWER PLAY

The Buffalo Sabres' power play was just a shade below mediocre last season.

And what a relief that was.

The season before, the Sabres were downright brutal on the power play, owning one of the worst in NHL history. Prolonged slumps were a significant factor in Buffalo barely eking into the playoffs.

But the Sabres' power play was substantially better in 2000-01, finishing near the middle of the NHL pack and scoring 67 percent more goals than the season before.

The Sabres are looking for the trend to continue. Coach Lindy Ruff this week started implementing the power play during workouts in North Charleston, S.C. Although he said it's too soon to judge how effective the unit can be, he admitted there's reason for excitement, particularly with new players Tim Connolly and Slava Kozlov.

"We've got six or seven guys who can contribute on the power play," Ruff said after the Sabres' final practice in South Carolina. They will return to Buffalo today and practice at HSBC Arena this afternoon.

Ruff added, "We have some guys who have played in that situation. We have many options."

It wasn't that way two seasons ago. The Sabres' power play was virtually impotent. Buffalo converted 10.5 percent of its man-advantage opportunities in 1999-2000, 5.7 percent below the league average.

At the time it was the second-worst performance by any team since the NHL's 1967 expansion, with only the 1997-98 Tampa Bay Lightning faring any worse. (Last season's Minnesota Wild had a worse power-play record than the Sabres did in 1999-2000.)

Ruff's top priority heading into last season was renovating the power play. The Sabres signed specialist Dave Andreychuk and were looking forward to a full campaign with Doug Gilmour and J.P. Dumont.

Buffalo's power play rebounded to finish 17th in the NHL, scoring on 16 percent of its chances. The team was further bolstered down the stretch by late-season acquisitions Donald Audette and Steve Heinze, who combined for 29 power-play goals on the season. Dumont led all full-time Sabres with nine goals, and Andreychuk and Miroslav Satan finished with eight each.

While three of the top five power-play goal scorers from last season are gone - Andreychuk, Audette and Heinze have moved on as free agents - Ruff still looks to advance in that area.

"If we can get to that level again (from last season) and hopefully improve," Ruff said, "it can only lead to more victories."

Ruff still has a list of candidates who can be major power-play contributors. In addition to Satan, Dumont, Connolly and Kozlov, there are Maxim Afinogenov, Stu Barnes and Chris Gratton.

Alexei Zhitnik, who had five power-play goals and a team-high 17 assists, returns as the Sabres' prominent point man.

"I don't think there's any magic formula," Ruff responded when asked how he will go about assembling his units. "We'll have some individuals we'll look at, and if a particular unit doesn't jell we'll continue to tweak them until we find something that does work.

"For most coaches, you try to put groups of guys together so they develop a little chemistry on the power play. You want someone who can make plays, who can thread passes over sticks and between legs. But sometimes a good power play is getting the puck back to the point and pounding away. Then that means you have to have a guy strong enough in front of the net to win some battles."

Andreychuk was that physical player last season, as he has been throughout his career. Now Gratton, who is 6-foot-3, 219 pounds, could fill the bouncer role. Gratton has never reached double digits in power-play goals, but he did finish with five goals last season and scored two more in the playoffs.

The main player from which the Sabres expect more on the power play is Satan, a scorer who could benefit from a steady set-up man.

"We look for a bigger year from Miro, and I think Connolly can help him in that sense," Ruff said. "If you have a Satan out there, you love to have him in an open lane, where if you get an open shot, chances are you can score.

"The way Connolly has played throughout camp, so far it does get you excited. He's a real good playmaker. We want to see him in game conditions against other teams and see how the power play does with him on the ice."

During this weekend's preseason games at HSBC Arena, the Sabres are planning to honor the heroes and remember the victims of last week's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., and the team asks fans to wear red, white and blue on both nights.

The Sabres are offering all police, fire and emergency medical personnel in Erie and Niagara counties up to four complimentary tickets to either Friday's game against the Ottawa Senators or Saturday's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. To obtain the tickets, workers must personally visit the HSBC box office today between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. or Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. until game time. Proper identification is required.

Other game tributes include participatory pregame ceremonies and the decorating of the arena in red, white and blue. The Buffalo police and fire departments will present the U.S. colors for the national anthem Friday.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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