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SABRES RESTRICT BIG-GAME TICKETS TO 'LOYAL' FANS

The Buffalo Sabres, rather quietly last Monday, started selling single-game tickets for their 41 home games. Well, they actually have tickets available for only 37 home games, so we provide a public service in hopes of saving you time and aggravation.

Until further notice, tickets to the two games against Toronto in HSBC Arena, Dominik Hasek's lone appearance in Buffalo and a Jan. 10 contest against Mario Lemieux's Pittsburgh Penguins are off limits unless you're a loyal follower, as defined by your financial commitment to the Sabres.

The Sabres are giving fans who purchased season tickets or 10-game packages first dibs on buying more to those four games. They say it's a way of rewarding the faithful.

"That is the reason," said Ron Bertovich, vice president for administration. "Those games are going to be marquee games for 10-pack holders, minipack holders, season-ticket additions. We're going to make sure those people who have made a commitment to us are taken care of."

The Sabres also have an ulterior motive. The four hottest games on the schedule also serve as an incentive -- ransom? -- so fans spend more by purchasing a ticket package. The minipack allows fans to choose 10 games before the season. The flexpack gives them 10 vouchers to use at their desire.

If you want to be absolutely certain to see The Dominator, Super Mario and the Leafs, the only way is by buying a 10-pack or more. One benefit is having first crack at playoff tickets. It doesn't take long to find 10 quality games.

For example, take the four marquee matchups, the other game against the Penguins and one each against Michael Peca's Islanders, the Rangers, Flyers, Avalanche and, say, Blues. Any combination will do. The price would range from $170 to $780 for one seat depending on the location.

"We want to sell season tickets, and we want to sell minipacks," Bertovich said. "We want to give our fans as much flexibility as possible."

Tickets for the game against Pittsburgh on Oct. 14 are available to the general public. Tickets for the marquee four will be available to everyone at some point, presuming the season-ticket base doesn't gobble them up.

Just imagine the outcry if Hasek decides he needs to rest March 10 for his only game in Buffalo. The Red Wings have a matinee the previous day in St. Louis, a conference rival and possibly a key game down the stretch. Hasek take a break against the Sabres?

The Dominator wouldn't do that . . . would he?

Rangers shopping Nedved

Petr Nedved's recent contract signing with the Rangers would make for a neat little swap with the Canadiens, who need someone to help turn things around.

Sources say talks have been heavy recently between the Rangers and Habs about Nedved, who has been the subject of trade rumors for at least the last two years. The Habs are looking for a proven center after losing Saku Koivu, who is battling cancer. The Rangers want prospects. Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson also has been mentioned in a potential deal for Nedved.

The possibility of acquiring Nedved explains why the Habs are waiting to decide if they want former Sabre Doug Gilmour, who is still unsigned and unretired. Gilmour wants assurances he will play at least on the third line and the power play.

Ivan the unintelligible

Penguins coach Ivan Hlinka appears to be on sturdy ground for now, but don't be shocked if he's eventually shown the door in part because he has problems communicating with players.

It's not that Hlinka doesn't relate to his players -- he does -- but the coach from the Czech Republic butchers the English language. The Pens strongly suggested he improve his language skills by taking formal English lessons over the summer.

Hlinka instead relied on videotapes, which helped him understand more and speak better. His language skills are satisfactory with General Manager Craig Patrick, but owner-center Mario Lemieux was less than thrilled upon learning his coach didn't take formal lessons.

"I noticed that," Lemieux told the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette. "It would certainly help his cause and the team (if he is) able to communicate a little bit better with the players. He felt he could learn better with the tapes, I guess."

Hlinka was brought aboard mostly because the Penguins believed it would help winger Jaromir Jagr, who has since been traded to Washington.

Blackburn pushes to stay

Chances are Rangers No. 1 pick Dan Blackburn won't be with the big club when the season opens, but the Blueshirts will give the goaltender a long look in training camp.

Mike Richter is coming off of major knee surgery, but he should be ready as the No. 1 goalie when the regular season begins. Blackburn, 18, has true NHL potential. He was sensational in stopping 25 of 27 shots in his exhibition debut against Detroit.

"The way they told me is that there is a spot open and they are going to give it to the best guy," Blackburn said. "I'm just going out to play my game, and wherever it takes me, it takes me."

Richter's recovery and Blackburn's performance in training camp might be enough for the Rangers to shy away from Chris Osgood, the odd-man out in Detroit. Former Sabres goalie Peter Skudra, now in Manhattan, is a capable backup. Keeping Skudra would allow the Rangers to give Blackburn time to develop before he jumps into the NHL.

The Rangers still might make a pitch for Osgood, but he would be much better off landing in St. Louis.

Safety nets tightened

Virtually every team in the league is reviewing their plans and making security adjustments in the wake of the terrorist attacks Sept. 11.

In Boston, where two of the doomed flights originated, everyone in the Bruins' traveling party went through metal detectors and had their bags X-rayed before boarding the charter. Players were asked to report an hour before takeoff.

Arenas are also beefing up security. Guards in the National Car Rental Center were checking purses before a Florida Panthers' exhibition. The Red Wings added undercover cops and had fans pass through metal detectors before a game against the Rangers.

Quotable

Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch after an exhibition against the Flyers was halted because fans in the First Union Center wanted to watch President Bush's speech to Congress: "We get paid to play this game because people want to watch us. They made it pretty clear when they were going to shut that speech off that they wanted to see it. It was nice to end that game."

Around the boards

The New Jersey Devils and the New Jersey Nets are donating revenue from walk-up ticket sales for all their preseason games to the families of victims in the terrorist attacks. Other teams, including the Sabres, have given away tickets to local rescue workers or fans who donate money toward the cause. . . . I know every penny counts, but the NHLPA's $500,000 donation to the families of firefighters and police officers who died after the attack amounted to just more than $700 per player. The average annual salary is about $1.4 million. . . . The best player for the money is San Jose's Patrick Marleau, who signed a one-year deal for $1.3 million, less than the league average. Marleau, 22, is already entering his fifth NHL season. He had 25 goals and 52 points last season. This guy is going to make big money when he becomes eligible for arbitration, which could be after next season if he has enough points to waive the option year in his contract. . . . Bruins are concerned about winger Mike Gellard, who suffered from significant weight loss and is being examined by specialists. He tipped the scales at 195 before inexplicably losing 30 pounds. Gellard played college hockey at St. Lawrence with Nichols grad Jim Lorentz Jr. . . . Former Sabres coach Ted Nolan attended one of the Devils' workouts last week. His son, Brandon, was in camp after being selected in the third round in June. . . . Among the missing from the WTC attack is John Murray, a Cantor Fitzgerald employee and a groomsman in Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch's wedding. . . . Mario Lemieux suited up for the AHL Wilkes-Barre Penguins last week as a reward for minor league fans. "I'll have to ask the coach what I did wrong," he said. . . . The Panthers are the latest team thinking about alternating their captains. It looks like they'll start with Pavel Bure and Paul Laus. . . . The Avalanche's exhibition game in Sweden was a dud, mainly because of the terrorist attacks here. Not helping was the absence of Peter Forsberg, who's sitting out at least this season.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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