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November challenge sent Sabres' season skyward By establishing such a lofty goal, Ruff was informing his players that his faith in them hadn't wavered.

Back in mid-November, when the Buffalo Sabres were a team on the slide, Lindy Ruff threw away the book on coaching aphorisms and went radical. He said little about getting back to fundamentals. Nor did he resort to the tired coaching mantra of taking it one game at a time. Instead, Ruff sized up the upcoming schedule, took measure of his own team, and asserted the Sabres should win their next eight.

The coach then took a small step backward, acknowledging that on some nights it just isn't meant to be. All eight games could be won, but he'd settle for victories in six of them. Give him 12 out of the next 16 points.

It was an intriguing bit of coaching psychology. By establishing such a lofty goal, Ruff was informing his players that his faith in them hadn't wavered. He was seeing them as the team that had opened the season 6-2, not the club that dropped six of its next seven.

The Sabres rallied around the message delivered by their veteran coach. They secured 15 of the next 16 points. They didn't suffer consecutive losses again until Jan. 7 and 12. By then, they had gathered 38 out of a possible 46 points and rocketed toward the top of the conference standings.

Saturday night at HSBC Arena, it was time for the Sabres to reaffirm how far they have come. They'd lost their all three of their meetings with the high-powered Ottawa Senators, having been smoked in the process. It would be hard to accept the Sabres as full-fledged Stanley Cup contenders until they proved they could handle what has been the division's elite team.

Buffalo's 2-1 shootout victory exorcised the demon. The Sabres, left far from full strength with injuries, are a team with legitimate title ambitions so long as General Manager Darcy Regier swings a deal to improve their defensive depth.

As for goaltender Ryan Miller, never mind whether he belongs among the three goaltenders on the U.S. Olympic Team. Consider, instead, whether he's fast becoming one of the top three netminders in the sport.

Saturday's win was Buffalo's fifth straight, a 10-for-10 run in the points department. And to think the whole reversal started when Ruff threw out the challenge.

"I think when he said that it was like 'OK, we've got something to shoot for now,' " defenseman Brian Campbell said. "It just seemed like we were like 'OK, he wants 12 of the next 16, we're going to give him 12 of the next 16 and we're going to work hard.'

"And then we just got on a roll there and guys were like, 'Screw this, let's get more than 12. And then after that, I know I was keeping it in my head. OK, now we got 20 of out 23 or whatever, then we had more and more, and I was keeping track in my head for quite a few games after that until the math became too much."

The new attitude spread throughout the ranks. Long-term injuries to Miller, J.P. Dumont, Daniel Briere, Adam Mair and, most recently, Tim Connolly, haven't knocked the Sabres out of kilter. Marty Biron may be Miller's backup, but he was the goaltending rock at the season's turning point. Jason Pominville stepped in on the front lines and became a revelation. Taylor Pyatt returned to the lineup from his wrist injury with a performance that said, OK, I get it now.

It all goes back to Ruff making a statement that he admitted was out of character.

"When things aren't going well, whether it's bad bounces or the teams that are playing you, you start to question your confidence, as a player, as a team, and I think that comment made us really think, 'We are a good team,' " defenseman Jay McKee said. "I think that's what Lindy was trying to tell us. It kind of gives you that confidence when you hear it from your coach that he believes in you and he knows what you can do. It lifts you up."

They did what their coach asked of them. They have done that and so much more.

"I think he should have taken us out to dinner, but he never did," Campbell said. "We were expecting something at the end of the rainbow instead of him just yelling at us."

"I was thinking dinner at his house," said McKee. "I want to see him with a little chef's outfit on. But it didn't happen. I guess we'll just keep plugging away."

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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