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ESSENSA ADDS EXPERIENCE TO SABRES' MIX OF GOALIES

If a veteran goaltender wanted to revive his career in the NHL, the last place he should look is Buffalo.

It would be like a gold digger seeking a big score at Pfohl Brothers landfill.

Bob Essensa knew as much when he signed with the Buffalo Sabres this summer. The Sabres are the most loaded team in the league at goalie. So much so that they could afford to bid farewell to Dominik Hasek, one of the most talented netminders in hockey history.

With Martin Biron and Mika Noronen both ticketed for future stardom and 1999 draft pick Ryan Miller rewriting the collegiate record book, there simply is no need for incoming veteran competition for the starter's role in the crease.

But what the Sabres do need is something Essensa can be: a wise backup to win an occasional start and help the Sabres mine their precious commodities.

Essensa was in net for Saturday night's 4-3 preseason victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in a sold-out HSBC Arena.

The Sabres went three for five on the power play, including the winner by Slava Kozlov -- obtained from the Detroit Red Wings in the Hasek trade -- with 4:58 left. Norm Milley, Jason Woolley and Denis Hamel also were credited with goals, as Essensa stopped 22 shots.

"He made some big saves," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "I thought he had bad luck on a couple (goals). One was screened and the other went off (Sabres defenseman) Dmitri Kalinin, and he lost sight of it. But he was pretty solid."

Essensa, with his fifth NHL team, signed a one-year, $600,000 contract.

"It was a good fit from everybody's perspective," Essensa said. "Certainly, from management's standpoint, it's not all that thrilling an option to throw the young guy into the fire without having a guy who's been around a little bit.

"In the big picture, this organization wants (Biron and Noronen) to mature into top-flight No. 1 goalies."

Essensa has played long enough to amass a career record of 173-171-47 with 18 shutouts and a 3.15 goals-against average. But he doesn't expect to pad those stats much in Buffalo.

"It's not really what I'm looking at," Essensa said. "I'm going to be 37 in a couple months' time. It's not as though I'm looking to re-start my career as a No. 1 guy. I'm going to come in here and give these guys some sort of veteran-type leadership and play well those times I do get the tap on the shoulder."

Essensa is getting a little thin on top, and his sideburns are starting to gray. But the Sabres believe his game hasn't gotten old, and they're confident his competitive fire still burns. He played 39 games last season for Vancouver and went 18-12-3 with a 2.68 GAA.

"I don't know if I've seen a goalie yet that's comfortable being a backup," Ruff said. "He's somebody who can step in and play well when we need him to play."

Essensa accepted his role as Plan B years ago. He became Curtis Joseph's backup in Edmonton in 1996-97 and played behind Felix Potvin and Dan Cloutier last season.

"It's a label, a role I had gotten used to over the past few years," Essensa said. "I just enjoy playing and being in the locker room. I love the camaraderie amongst the guys. That'll be the biggest thing I miss when I do decide to retire.

"But in terms of being a mentor, if I can give these guys any part of my experience, if I'm able to give them tidbits of information on guys I've seen a lot of, that's all part of it."

After Essensa gave up two first-period goals, Woolley tied the score with a power-play goal off a draw at 10:04 of the second. Hamel, also on a power play, gave the Sabres a 3-2 lead at 9:26 of the third period.

Blue Jackets defenseman Mattias Timander scored his second goal to tie the game at 3 with 7:03 left to play, but Kozlov answered with the winner -- his first goal as a Sabre -- by tipping home a Woolley shot.

"We were very patient on the power play," Woolley said. "We didn't try to force anything. It's not rocket science."

It was winger Stu Barnes' turn to wear the captain's "C" in Ruff's preseason rotation. Defenseman Alexei Zhitnik wore it Friday.

The Sabres are off today but will hold their annual carnival from 3-7 p.m. at HSBC Arena. The event, which costs $10 and benefits multiple charities, includes heavy interaction with players, photo opportunities and autograph sessions.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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