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SABRES PUTTING UP SHOTS, WITH CONSISTENCY THE GOAL

It might be a tad early in the season to discuss trends, but an obvious one is developing in the Buffalo Sabres' preseason box scores.

Depending on the perspective, it's either a cause for concern or excitement.

Buffalo's offense has started each of its three games rather cooly before igniting in the second and third periods with numerous scoring chances and impressive shot totals.

Entering their game against the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight in Air Canada Centre (7:30, Radio 107.7 FM), the Sabres have averaged 5.7 shots in the first 20 minutes and 24.3 shots over the last 40 minutes. Opponents are averaging 26.3 shots the entire game.

The Sabres, however, haven't taken full advantage of their scoring opportunities. They are 1-2 in the preseason and have scored six goals.

"It's still not where it's supposed to be, and it still can be improved," winger Miroslav Satan said. "But I hope the more time we spend together it's going to be clicking better and creating even more chances."

The Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday were outshooting the Sabres, 10-0, through 14 minutes of the first period. The Sabres still had a chance to win with a late surge, but they couldn't finish on crucial chances.

"I think the one thing that's disturbing is how often we missed the net on some great opportunities," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "We missed the net five or six times. Those are the type of situations that, if we want to be better offensively, we've got to get more out of them."

Ruff estimated the Sabres have gotten 15 scoring chances a game.

"We're going to have to find a way to finish," Satan said. "But it's early, and probably nobody has their game instincts back yet. It's going to take one more week, and then, hopefully, we're going to be ready to start our season."

The Sabres finish their preseason schedule with three games over the next three nights. The regular season begins a week from tonight, when the Atlanta Thrashers visit HSBC Arena.

Until then, the Sabres will look for consistency as they further settle into their roles and the opening-night roster falls into place.

"So far it's been pretty good," winger Stu Barnes said. "You look at the different combinations, and it looks like there's some chemistry there in all the lines. Everybody is creating chances."

Barnes described this year's team as one of the most offensively talented since he has been in Buffalo. In addition to veteran forwards such as himself, Satan, Chris Gratton and Curtis Brown, the Sabres added center Tim Connolly and winger Slava Kozlov. Center Denis Hamel is back from a serious knee injury, and more will be expected from wingers Maxim Afinogenov and J.P. Dumont.

It can be argued the Sabres didn't lose much offense over the offseason. Donald Audette, Steve Heinze, Doug Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk and Vladimir Tsyplakov are gone, but Heinze proved to be the only consistent scorer of the bunch.

"It seems like there's a lot more offensive ability in the room now," Barnes said. "Not taking away from the guys who were here before, but it should be interesting. We've got some monster offensive ability and speed. It should be fun.

"We've got some pretty offensive lines, and with the new faces and offensive talent, it definitely gives us a different dimension. I don't know if it's just going to be as easy as that, but with this team we've always tried to build a solid game at both ends of the ice."

Defense has long been the Sabres' foundation, but with added skill up front, a new equilibrium will be determined.

"We're encouraging different things," Ruff said. "We're going to allow a little bit more rein on the offensive side to a point where some mistakes will lead to situations going against us."

Barnes hasn't noticed Buffalo making too many defensive concessions this preseason. The Sabres are allowing an average of just 2.3 goals a game, including a fluke empty-net score Tuesday.

"It seems like we've been pretty solid defensively," Barnes said. "There's a fine line to balancing the two, being able to play well and responsibly in your own end and still being able to get up ice when the opportunity's there.

"Finding that balance is going to be important, and once we find that we'll be in good shape."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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