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Inside the NHL / Confident Sabres believe they're for real, but do fans?

You're thinking the Buffalo Sabres are flirting with the laws of probability, that lurking around the corner after their terrific start stands a hearty losing streak and reality check. It's understandable in this town, where fans hope for the best but have been conditioned to brace for the worst.

From the outside, the Sabres look like teams from their recent past. Other than a few tweaks, they have basically the same roster from two years ago. They have the same coaching staff, the same people making decisions upstairs. Once again, they don't have a superstar. They're absent a scorer in the Top 70.

The Sabres had reasons to fall apart but instead had the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference going into the weekend. They're 10-1-0-1 in their last 12 games. Seven players have scored the winner over their last 10 victories. They're playing hard, playing together, playing well.

Kick back, enjoy, and demand nothing less.

The Sabres aren't overachieving, no matter the preseason predictions. They're playing to their potential, feeding off their workaholics, getting production from their skill players and goaltenders. Coach Lindy Ruff made quick adjustments to the new rules. Their confidence makes them more dangerous.

Buffalo's chemistry and work ethic hasn't been this strong since the 1999 Stanley Cup finals. Chemistry is not something easily defined, but you know it's right if you understand what Paul Gaustad and Adam Mair bring over Miroslav Satan. The Sabres have been dancing to the same tune since Satan walked out the door.

And that brings us to leadership. It's not what Chris Drury and Daniel Briere say, but how they play that makes the difference. Drury is blocking shots, killing penalties, doing whatever it takes to win. Briere looks small, plays big and helps set the tone. Mike Grier is a grinder with a voice. Jay McKee has conducted a shot-blocking clinic.

Depth? The Sabres have won without Briere for eight games and J.P. Dumont for 10 games and counting. Jason Pominville and Derek Roy can play. Ryan Miller broke his thumb Nov. 2. Martin Biron has won nine straight starts with a 2.39 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in his last 11 games overall.

Who's the backup when Miller returns?

Talent helps, and the Sabres have more than they did two years ago. Teppo Numminen and Toni Lydman were greeted with yawns, but both are mobile defensemen who come at the right price. Numminen is on pace for 54 assists, which would match his career high for points. Brian Campbell is having a career year. Alexei who?

Ales Kotalik is a rising star, a sniper who is getting more ice time with Satan gone. Look out once rookie Thomas Vanek finds his way. Tim Connolly, where do I begin? He's the same person, entirely different player. Confidence works wonders, the results of which you're seeing from him. Did anybody really believe he would lead this team in scoring more than a third of the way through the season?

Simply, there were few passengers through the first two months. The best way to evaluate a team's character is seeing how they play on the road. Buffalo is 9-5-1 away from home, winner of six straight. Five of the six have been decided by a goal. They're convinced they can beat anyone, even Ottawa.

Are you?

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Marchant on the move?

Todd Marchant might not want to get too comfortable in Anaheim. Persistent rumors have the Williamsville Wonder returning to the waiver wire. The problem all along has been Marchant's six-year, $18 million contract.

The Mighty Ducks plucked him off waivers in what appeared to be a shady deal to circumvent his no-trade clause in his contract with Columbus. The Blue Jackets acquired Sergei Fedorov after General Manager Doug MacLean became desperate. The Ducks grabbed Marchant a few days later.

"It was the way it went down that was so frustrating and discouraging," Marchant said during the Ducks' stop in Buffalo.

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Roenick full of hot air

Jeremy Roenick had to be kidding last week when he said it would be "a travesty" if he wasn't picked for the U.S. Olympic team. He made his assessment a day before Team USA coach Peter Laviolette skated into town with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Roenick's campaign was based on what he and other veterans have done for USA Hockey. Apparently, he's ignoring a few other factors, such as performance. Roenick hasn't even been the most-productive American-born center on the Kings. That would be Potsdam native Craig Conroy, who is likely to be overlooked.

Conroy had 11 goals and 28 points in 30 games going into the weekend. J.R. had five goals and 11 points in 27 games. Roenick isn't even the most productive big mouth. Goon Sean Avery had six goals and 16 points.

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Head case in Chicago

Blackhawks coach Trent Yawney's rationale for not playing Nikolai Khabibulin in the goalie's return to Tampa Bay last weekend was -- get this -- he wanted to keep the goalie's head straight after Khabibulin began rallying from a miserable start.

"What if he put so much pressure on himself that he gets all out of sorts again?" Yawney said. "How do you eliminate the potential for that problem? You eliminate the game. I think he would have tried too hard."

Or what if he had earned his paycheck? Khabibulin can handle the pressure. He won the Stanley Cup and is making $6.75 million, for heaven's sake. Such reasoning explains why the Blackhawks were 5-10-2 on the road and going nowhere.

***

Timeout for Lightning

John Tortorella gave his players three days off during a five-day stretch in between Lightning games after a scheduling quirk. He could have seven players going to the Olympics and was looking for ways to keep them fresh. And then there's this:

"They get sick of looking at the coaches and vice versa," Tortorella said. "It's human nature when you're with one another in situations of emotions and teaching and grinding. You get sick of people. Sometimes they get sick of me, and I'm sick of them."

***

Bettman rips Pound

Commissioner Gary Bettman has been ripping anti-doping President Dick Pound every time he's offered the opportunity. Pound previously claimed one-third of all NHL players would fail drug tests under the Olympic system.

"It continues to amaze me that Mr. Pound has yet to offer any specifics despite the fact that we've requested them from him," Bettman said. "I think what he said was not based on fact. I think it was based on rumor and innuendo. I think he insulted our players. And I think he owes them an apology.

"If you're looking to grandstand and if you're looking to make headlines, what better way to do it than on the back of NHL players."

By the way, I agree with Bettman, but look at the key words: fact, innuendo, insulted, apology, grandstand, headlines, NHL players. No doubt, Bettman is an authority.

***

Around the boards

Anaheim defenseman Keith Carney, drafted by the Sabres in 1988, on his days in Buffalo: "I loved playing in the Aud. I loved the blue and gold. When they changed their sweaters and changed buildings, to me it just wasn't the same. Back then, it was great. There was so much energy in that building."

Wild winger Kyle Wanvig faced a mandatory suspension for picking a fight with Western New York native and Penguins defensemen Brooks Orpik. Wanvig's response should have been expected after Orpik nailed Marc Chouinard with a cheap shot from behind in the final minutes of a blowout.

Carolina's Eric Staal tied a franchise record when he scored his 20th goal in the team's 27th game, matching a 25-year-old mark set by Blaine Stoughton (remember him?). Staal also recorded his 40th point the same night. Ron Francis needed 29 games in 1982-83.

Good thing Dallas is winning or winger Bill Guerin would be feeling the heat. Guerin had just six goals in the first 26 games, four points in 10 road games. The Stars expect more for $6.7 million.

The Lightning once feared Martin St. Louis would miss 11 games with a broken index finger, but he missed only two after playing through the pain. In the nine games, he had six goals and four assists while leading Tampa Bay to an 8-1 record.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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