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Sabres games become a scream

Even the handful of Buffalo Sabres who have experienced playoff hockey in HSBC Arena are amazed.

Sabres fans lately have been throwing their hearts, souls and vocal chords at their flourishing team. The atmosphere downtown has been simply raucous on game nights, from the eruptions to the chants to the general buzz from the moment the pavilion opens.

"When you have 17,000 people screaming, they pull you into the game. You have no choice," said Sabres winger J.P. Dumont. "You feel like they're pushing you, that they want it as bad as you. It's an unbelievable feeling."

HSBC Arena had sold out only twice 2 1/2 months into the season, and throngs who migrated across the border to cheer on the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs bolstered those crowds.

Since Dec. 17, however, the Sabres have played to capacity crowds eight times in 10 home dates. The two games that didn't sell out fell short by 658 and 1,239 tickets. The latter was Saturday night's compelling shootout victory over the Ottawa Senators, but the rocking arena had the ambience of a packed house.

"That energy from having the building full is a tremendous advantage," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "Players get jacked up. The energy in the building is like a playoff game for the most part. They like the way we're playing."

With 15 regular-season home games left, the Sabres are only one sellout away from matching their 2003-04 total. They had three sellouts in their 2002-03 bankruptcy season.

"The fact they have a superb record so far and have an exciting team that's fun to watch, that's the reason [fans are] buying all these tickets," said Rick Jeanneret, the team's play-by-play broadcaster.

The energy isn't limited to the confines of HSBC Arena. Although there was some confusion over the team's switch from the defunct Empire Sports Network to MSG early in the season, television ratings are up roughly 60 percent from this point in 2003-04.

"I'm not a person who even knows how to read a rating book, but you know there's a lot of excitement in the community," Jeanneret said. "I've talked to several people who've been in several different bars around Western New York when the Sabres are playing, and they say it's hoot-and-holler time at all times."

The euphoria surrounding the Sabres will translate into an acceptable bottom line at season's end.

"Things are going great," said Daniel DiPofi, the club's chief operating officer. "Winning hockey games makes a lot of people look smarter. We're happy with how things have gone, and we expect the remainder of the season is going to be a very strong finish for us based on how we're tracking right now."

DiPofi said the Sabres have sold about 80,000 more tickets (including future games) than they had sold at this point in 2003-04. Divide that figure by HSBC Arena's 18,690 seats and it equates to 4.3 sellouts.

DiPofi stated the team lost between $8 million and $9 million in 2003-04, but it should show a profit this season -- and that doesn't account for any postseason-generated revenues.

"We are going to be in the black. No doubt about that," DiPofi said. "And the playoffs, which we don't consider when we're doing our budget for the year, will be gravy from a financial standpoint."

DiPofi stressed that a sellout crowd in HSBC Arena is a legitimate one. That wasn't always the case, especially under the Rigas regime. The team expects to distribute about 35,000 giveaways to charities, employees and advertising partners. He said they comped 75,000 tickets in 2003-04.

"When you see 18,690, that's at least 17,700 tickets sold," DiPofi said. "I look back at some of the old information during the Adelphia years, man, there was one year there were 120,000 comped tickets. That's 3,000 a game."

The Sabres, who introduced variable ticket pricing this season, gross around $1 million for a gold-designated game, $750,000 for a silver, $650,000 for a bronze and $600,000 for a value game.

Saturday's triumph over the Senators was a gold game. Even though it didn't sell out, it brought in more money than Thursday's sold-out bronze game against Philadelphia.

Both games had their spine-tingling crowd moments. Against the Flyers, fans chanted "U-S-A" for goalie Ryan Miller, who was snubbed for the Olympic team while the man at the other end of the ice, Robert Esche, was invited.

When rookie Thomas Vanek used a brilliant sleight of stick move Saturday night to beat Dominik Hasek in the shootout, players on the Sabres bench were elbowing each other because of the crowd's eruption.

"It's definitely the best atmosphere I've played in since I've been here," said winger Taylor Pyatt, in his fourth season with the Sabres. "The excitement in the building and excitement around this city is great to see. This is something the city should be excited about. It's a lot of fun."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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