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INTENSE PLAY ON AGENDA AS TEAM LOOKS TO 'ROLL'

The Buffalo Sabres insist tonight's game isn't meaningless.

Sure, it's the preseason, and the 7 p.m. exhibition against the Ottawa Senators in HSBC Arena won't count in the standings. But the Sabres want to approach their first preseason game with the same intensity they would for the real deal.

The Sabres want to set a tone in their six exhibition games that will carry over into the regular season. They will host the Columbus Blue Jackets at 6 p.m. Saturday, then play four road games next week.

"Preseason we want to have a winning team because that's really the way you gotta approach the regular season," goaltender Martin Biron said. "That's the roll we want to get on."

With few positions up for grabs and several candidates willing to fill them, the younger players should be fired up.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, however, is expecting the same level of intensity from his established players. There won't be any excuses for coasting.

"There's teams that are already disappointed in their veteran players' lack of effort and lack of desire in these preseason games," Ruff said. "I expect our effort and desire to be there. It helps out the young kids they're playing with, and it gives everyone a better chance to prove what they can bring to the team. We're going to demand a good effort out of the team."

Most NHL teams already have started their preseason schedules. After several intrasquad scrimmages, the Sabres are pleased to finally face an opponent other than themselves.

"It's going to be good to get into a game situation," defenseman Rhett Warrener said. "Scrimmages are good, but it's hard to hold any animosity (toward teammates), and when you get into exhibition and regular-season games there's a lot more banging, a lot more bumping, a lot more hooking and holding. It's going to be a good way to get a feel of how the team is going to be."

Biron will start the game between the pipes, and Mika Noronen will dress as his backup. But Ruff plans to leave Biron on the ice all night.

"My feeling is a goalie doesn't get a lot of rhythm in 30 minutes, and then you got another guy coming in cold," Ruff said.

Biron is ready for a live opponent. He has faced plenty of shots in training camp, but such practice just isn't the same as the real thing, as evidenced by a 9-8 score at a Tuesday scrimmage in South Carolina.

"Definitely anxious," Biron said. "It's just going to be a good thrill. The scrimmages are fun, but the defense just wasn't there -- or maybe the goalie wasn't all there. It's going to be fun to get the action going."

Biron, playing his first game as the Sabres' No. 1 goalie, added he will evaluate his performance tonight the same way he does a regular-season outing.

"I would like to go out there and really be a brick wall in there and stop everything, show a lot of good things," he said. "The faster you get to your game shape, the faster you get to be the guy you want to be throughout the season.

"I'm going to get ready as if it was a really important game. You don't go out there taking anything for granted. I want to go out there really, really wanting to prove a lot of things to myself. I don't really care if I prove to the fans or the organization or my teammates. My expectations of myself are way higher than anybody else's towards me."
Tonight's lines will vary a bit from what the Sabres used in South Carolina earlier this week. With two games in two nights, Ruff will balance the lineup with a mix of veterans and youngsters.

Tim Connolly will center a line with Stu Barnes on his left and Miroslav Satan on his right. Curtis Brown will center J.P. Dumont and Maxim Afinogenov. Chris Gratton will center Slava Kozlov and Vaclav Varada. Francois Methot will center Eric Boulton and Christian Matte.

On defense, the pairings will be Warrener and Jay McKee, Alexei Zhitnik and James Patrick, and Brian Campbell and Dimitri Kalinin.

Ruff noted people shouldn't overanalyze tonight's lineup. Many of the more notable names not starting tonight -- such as forwards Denis Hamel, Norm Milley, Taylor Pyatt, Rob Ray and Chris Taylor and defensemen Richard Smehlik and Jason Woolley -- should play Saturday night.
Connolly hopes Buffalo jersey No. 18 treats him better than it did Satan last season. Connolly will wear the number -- the same one he had on Long Island -- even though Satan ditched it early in 2000-01, when he got off to a sluggish start and reverted to his more familiar No. 81.

Since Danny Gare wore No. 18 during the 1970s and early '80s, little luck has been bestowed upon its owners, a list that includes Gilles Hamel, Paul Cyr, Bob Halkidis, Dave Snuggerud, Wayne Presley and Michal Grosek.
e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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