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Sabres turn back the clock

It had been such a long time, you almost forgot how it feels. But if you closed your eyes and listened Wednesday night, if you heard the crowd in HSBC Arena roaring and chanting Martin Biron's name, you would have sworn you were at a Stanley Cup playoff game.

Yes, it's early. There's still a long season ahead. There are more than 50 games left, and there's a lot of hockey left to be played. We have to trudge through an entire Buffalo winter, and into the early spring, before we find out just how good this Sabres team can be.

But some regular-season games are more meaningful than others. Some nights, you watch a team play against a tough, worthy opponent and you start to wonder if there might be something special going on. The Sabres' 4-3 win over the Dallas Stars was one of those nights.

For starters, it was one of those sporting events where the emphasis was on "event." Former President Bill Clinton was a guest of Sabres owner Tom Golisano. Irish tenor Ronan Tynan moved the crowd with his voice. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra brass did the same with its instruments.

On a night when there was no local TV coverage, an aroused, appreciative crowd of 16,575 showed up. There was a walk-up crowd of 2,621, an unusually high number for a weekday contest. It might have been the most spirited arena gathering in five seasons.

The Sabres were equal to the moment. They came out flying against the Stars, determined to prove their 11-1-1 streak was no fluke. They scored 2:58 in and led 3-0 after 12:30 into the second period. They got a hustle goal from Daniel Briere to gain a two-goal edge early in the third. Then they held on behind some sensational goaltending by Biron.

Dallas was a good measuring stick, a team that was leading the Pacific Division and looking to win a sixth straight game for the first time since the 1998-99 season -- the year they beat the Sabres in the Cup final. So this was more than your typical two-point night.

"Yeah," Briere said. "We're near the top in the East, so we want to show we can play with the best. We haven't fared well against Ottawa this year, but we've done well against the other good teams. We wanted to see how we would react against Dallas."

The Sabres reacted the way they have all year. They played hard for 60 minutes. They got contributions from all four lines. They got terrific goaltending. They demonstrated the team spirit that has Lindy Ruff comparing them to his '99 team.

"When we went to the finals, that team really built up a lot of steam and atmosphere," Ruff said, "and there was a lot of character."

The '99 team was an unusual group. Dominik Hasek got most of the credit, but they had rare team chemistry. From night to night, you never knew where the next big goal would come from. On this date in '99, they were in the midst of an eight-game win streak. They were beginning to show signs of bigger things to come.

It's significant for Ruff to be drawing parallels. After Wednesday's game, he used words like "belief" and "trust" to describe this year's team. He said they're playing with a chip on their shoulders. They're waiting for the hockey world to believe in them, too.

If this win was any indication, the fans are beginning to believe. A lot of them will not be won over easily, but this Sabres team might have the personality to do it.

"Buffalo people respect what we do," said Adam Mair. "But they demand a competitive team that wins hockey games. The crowds sort of turned away after the bankruptcy and the lockout. That 12th man they talk about in football wasn't there. Tonight, they carried us. . . . We want to win for the city. To know we have the support from the core of the town is great, and we hope it continues."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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