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KOZLOV KEEPS COOL WITH HOT STREAK

The subject of discussion was Buffalo Sabres winger Slava Kozlov, and one word kept emanating from Lindy Ruff's mouth.

"I keep using the word composure," the Sabres' coach said. "There's not much rattle in his game."

Funny, then, that when Kozlov looks back on his first season with Buffalo, he might recall the early turning point was a game where he got a bit frazzled.

Kozlov seemed collected 10 days ago in his return to Detroit, where he played for nine-plus seasons and got his name on the Stanley Cup twice. But he now admits he was overwhelmed facing the only other NHL team he has known.

He wanted to score so badly that night. He wanted to impress his old fans. He wanted to show Red Wings management he deserved more during his time there. He wanted to beat Dominik Hasek, the goalie who insulted Kozlov by labeling him a bit player the day after they were swapped for one another.

"I was nervous," Kozlov said. "It was a very emotional night for me. I tried to do my best to play a good game, and unfortunately we lost.

"Those were my friends I had spent a lot of time with in Detroit. They play against me, and it's the first time in my hockey career I play that type of game. But it's good experience that I go through that game. That's how you become a better player."

Kozlov certainly is performing as though he learned something that night, when the Sabres lost, 4-2.

In the four games since, he has scored four goals. It's early, but his five goals through nine games put him on pace to score 46 this season, which would easily surpass his career high of 36 set in 1995-96.

"Right now, everything is going in the net," he said.

Kozlov isn't kidding. It seems whatever he throws at opposing goaltenders -- even from behind the net -- is somehow getting past them.

In the first game after Detroit, he banked two goals off Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Johan Hedberg in a 4-1 victory. Two nights later, he scored a third-period goal off a rebound in the Sabres' 3-3 push with the Nashville Predators.

Kozlov scored the first goal in Saturday night's 3-1 triumph over the Montreal Canadiens in the Molson Centre. It was an awkward deflection off an Alexei Zhitnik shot that rendered goalie Jose Theodore virtually helpless.

"If you see my goals they're a little bit ugly," Kozlov said. "I didn't score the pretty ones this year. But it's a long season and, hopefully, I'm going to show what I can do."

Chris Gratton scored the winner against Montreal and recorded the tying goal against Nashville, so he knows a hot scorer when he sees one. Gratton centered Kozlov and Maxim Afinogenov on Saturday.

"It doesn't matter what kind of goals you get in this league. I'd love to take those garbage goals," Gratton said. "Everything's bouncing for him. When you get on one of those streaks, you want to get your stick on every puck and shoot it wherever you can. He's doing that right now, and the puck's going in for him."

Ruff hasn't been happy with his team's effort during the past five games, but he has been pleased with Kozlov's play -- even without the fortuitous bounces.

"I thought he might have been our best forward overall," Ruff said after the win in Montreal. "I thought he hung onto the puck really well. He was skating good. He showed a lot of composure with the puck at times when we had some guys that were pulling the pin and launching the grenade.

"He's very sound defensively, and he shows the type of composure that this team needs. We're young, and he's one guy that can handle a pressure situation and knows where to go to score big goals."

Many would be surprised to know Kozlov, 29, is the fifth highest-scoring Russian since 1993-94, his first full season in the NHL. He has 203 goals in that span.

One of Kozlov's paramount gripes in Detroit was lack of ice time, particularly on special teams. He averaged 14:43 a game last season for the Red Wings and has been getting about two minutes more a night with the Sabres.

"I'm playing a lot, and that's most important," said Kozlov. "I'm playing almost every third shift, and that's keeping me in the whole game.

"In Detroit I didn't play power play sometimes or the penalty kill. You sit on the bench for five or 10 minutes you're not fresh and your legs get tired and cold. That's a key."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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