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SATAN'S SUPERLATIVE START IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING

Hot starts, he's had a few. But it can be argued Buffalo Sabres winger Miroslav Satan has never had a more complete beginning to a season than he's experiencing this season.

Satan leads the Sabres in scoring with three goals and three assists heading into tonight's meeting with the Columbus Blue Jackets in HSBC Arena. He also ranks among the NHL leaders in ice time because his total game has demanded it.

"His level of competing is up there where he's giving hits, taking hits," coach Lindy Ruff said. "He hasn't scored on a lot of his real good opportunities, where he's got himself situated in that shot lane and his shot's blocked.

"Overall, I've been very pleased with his game, and he's been rewarded with it. To a man, he's been one of our top players."

Satan, playing on the power-play and penalty-kill units in addition to double-shifting, is averaging 23 minutes, 4 seconds a game for the Sabres, second only to defenseman Alexei Zhitnik, the team's resident ice monger at 25:16.

"Not only is he taking (the role) on, he relishes the fact that he's looked upon to provide the scoring punch for this team," Ruff said. "He does work extra hard at it. He's one of the guys that commands the most ice time on the team, and right now he's showing good leadership on the ice."

Satan already has had a five-game point streak, and he netted a goal in consecutive games against the Philadelphia Flyers, Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins. He has scored short-handed and on a power play. He has a game-winner. He and defenseman Jason Woolley lead the Sabres with plus-4 ratings.

"Miro hasn't gotten a lot of credit for as well as he's played early in the year," Buffalo captain Stu Barnes said. "He's a seasoned veteran. He leads by experience, and he's unbelievably talented."

Satan scored five goals in his first nine games in 1997-98, and he tallied three goals in his first four games two seasons ago. But even he is pleasantly surprised with the start of his current campaign.

"I usually don't have a real good start to my seasons, but this year's different, and I'm glad it is that way," Satan said. "It feels good. I'm always glad I'm able to help the team."

The Slovak has been saddled as a streaky player. He can heat up and cool off more quickly than Indian summer.

"It's more pressure when you're not scoring, and people are always looking up and saying, "What's wrong with him?' or, "He needs to start scoring,' " Satan said. "It's much more comfortable to get a couple goals early in the season and take it from there."

When he registered 40 goals in 1998-99, he was scoreless through the first eight games and had just four goals through 23 dates. He ignited to a record 13 goals in one 10-game stretch, including at least one in eight straight. He later had another six-game streak.

His most disconcerting trend, however, has been his late-season slumps that arrive around Groundhog Day. In 1997-98 he scored two goals in the Sabres' last 24 games. The past two seasons he went 13 straight without a goal.

Sabres fans hope Satan, who turns 31 Monday, has matured enough to avoid conking out again. He is playing in his eighth NHL season and should have learned by now how to work through slumps.

"I think when you're in a streak that isn't going so well, you still gotta be creating," Ruff said. "Right now, he's in there paying a price to try and create chances."

Satan also is extracting further reassurance from his linemates. He has been skating with playmaking center Tim Connolly and J.P. Dumont all season.

"It was always in the beginning of the season - if I can compare it to last year - trying to find the right chemistry, switching lines," Satan said. "This year it's different, playing on the same line with Timmy and J.P. Maybe that's a little helpful, too, to not have to be wondering who's playing on the other side or in the center.

"I don't know how much of it is me, how different my game is. As long as I'm playing good, I don't care the reason behind it."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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