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Age just a Numminen to senior Sabre Veteran defenseman is vital part of team

The Buffalo Sabres often tease Teppo Numminen about his age because he's such an easy target. The 37-year-old played eight seasons for the Winnipeg Jets, which makes him a dinosaur among these young, energetic pups. He's also the only player on the roster born in the 1960s.

Naturally, his teammates couldn't resist last week when goaltender Martin Biron won his 10th consecutive start, matching Gerry Desjardins' club record from 1976-77. After a 3-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild, somebody quickly turned toward Numminen and asked: "What was it like playing against Desjardins?"

Aaah, kids these days.

"He's such an easygoing guy," defenseman Brian Campbell said. "An attitude like that is kind of nice to see. Nothing really fazes him, whether it's before the game, after the game or during the game."

The Sabres were confident and loose Sunday as they prepared for tonight's game against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Wachovia Center. Buffalo is 14-1-1 over its past 16 games and has won its past six games and eight straight on the road. Biron's streak has reached 13 games, but Sabres coach Lindy Ruff might rest him tonight.

Given how the Sabres have played, it might not matter who plays goal.

In some respects, the Sabres this season have become an extension of their oldest player. Numminen
gives the Sabres more mobility and has been better than expected over the first two months. They're convinced his friendly, unflappable personality and consistent play has contributed to chemistry that's become so vital in the Buffalo dressing room.

And he's a key figure on the NHL's third-rated power play.

"My plan was to just play a simple game," Numminen said. "I have to be honest. I'm still improving. Usually, in the second half (of the season), I play better. That's the way I've been going, piece by piece putting back together my game. I'm not comfortable where I am. I can play much better."

If that's the case, the Sabres could be in good shape as they march toward the playoffs. Numminen still hasn't scored a goal, but he's on pace for a career high in assists. He leads the Sabres with 20 through 33 games, which ranked him third among NHL defensemen and ties him with former Sabre Alexei Zhitnik.

"It was a special situation coming in," Numminen said. "You know you have good, young, talented players. But you don't know how it's going to meld. You don't know how everybody is going to fit in. The big key is finding everyone to fit into comfortable spots and make everybody much better."

Numminen considered retirement after he suffered from a heart abnormality during the 2003-04 season, which was followed by the NHL lockout. Any questions about his health and his ability were answered during the World Championships last year, when he played well for Finland and proved the old dog knows all the tricks.

General Manager Darcy Regier and his staff targeted him after breaking down video of every player in the NHL during the lockout. They were impressed with Numminen, a three-time NHL All-Star, and signed the 17-year veteran to a one-year deal.

His arrival was greeted mostly with indifference from fans who were looking for a bigger splash during free agency. In fact, Numminen wasn't quite sure whether he would be effective.

So far, so good. Numminen is quarterbacking a power-play unit that has hummed along at 22.1 percent this season. He's been steady in his own end, which helped the Sabres overcome Zhitnik's departure to the New York Islanders.

Zhitnik might be a better player, but Numminen appears to be a better bargain. Zhitnik is making $3.5 million while Numminen is pocketing $2 million. The difference between the two appears minimal. Regardless, the Sabres have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference behind Ottawa.

"People were ho-humming a former all-star," Sabres defenseman Jay McKee said. "There's a perception, when a player gets past age 35, he's on the downswing. Teppo would be the first to tell you he may not be the player he was when he was 25, but he's been exceptional for us. You don't need all the tools you had when you're 25 if you're a smart player. And he's a smart player."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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