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Sabres' eyes on first place Victory in Ottawa could cap long climb

It's been nine years since the Buffalo Sabres were in first place this late in the season.

Nine years ago, Ryan Miller wasn't old enough see an R-rated movie. Taylor Pyatt was counting the days till he could get his driver's license. Derek Roy was studying for ninth-grade math tests. Thomas Vanek had finally become a teenager.

Tonight, those players and their teammates have a chance to give Sabres fans something they've been waiting a long time for.

The Sabres play the Ottawa Senators tonight in Scotiabank Place, and although it seemed like an unattainable dream a few months ago, a victory would vault Buffalo past the Senators and into first place in the Northeast Division.

First place just weeks before the playoffs? The last time the Sabres had sole possession of first was Oct. 14, 2002, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and the last time they had the top spot when games had real meaning was when they won the division in 1996-97.

Needless to say, the Buffalo hockey community is counting the minutes until the 7 p.m. faceoff. The team? Yeah, it's important, but always remember: One game at a time, my friend, one game at a time.

"I've said all year long we'll take the schedule one game at a time," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Friday in the Amherst Pepsi Center before flying north. "It's an important game. Is it the biggest game of the year? Well, on our schedule it's next, so it is the biggest game for us."

The way the season unfolded, few fans anywhere could have seen this coming. On Nov. 12, the Senators dismantled the Sabres, 6-1, in Ottawa. Buffalo was 8-8. The Senators were 13-2, scored at will and had been slotted as one Stanley Cup finalist.

"I think it kind of raised the bar for everybody around the whole Eastern Conference," Sabres co-captain Chris Drury said. "Anybody that skips out that fast and is playing that great, it says to everyone, 'Hey, the other 14 teams have got to pick it up and play better or these guys are going to run away with it.'

"It certainly raised our level of expectation and our level of play."

Since then, the Sabres have gone 36-8-5. The Sens are 31-13-6. Ottawa leads the Northeast with 94 points, while the Sabres have 93. A regulation win will put the Sabres one point up.

"There's still plenty of games left after [tonight]," said the other co-captain, Daniel Briere. "Even if we win, it doesn't mean we're going to finish first, and if they win, it doesn't mean they're going to finish first."

That said, it'd still be a boost to knock Ottawa from its perch, put some doubt in its mind, even if it's for a brief time.

"For us, it's the road to proving that we belong in the playoffs, that we can play with the best teams," Briere said. "We did really well the last time we played Ottawa, and now it's the next challenge. It's to prove that can play very well in Ottawa as well."

The Sabres won the last meeting, a 2-1 shootout win in Buffalo. Before that, it was all Senators, all the time. They won the opener, 5-0, at home; they won, 10-4, in Buffalo; then they had that 6-1 victory in what was then called the Corel Centre.

"Those were some tough losses," Drury said. "Responding to them was a pretty big step for our team confidence-wise."

The game has lost a little of its luster because of injuries, but they seem to cancel each other out. The Sabres will be without forwards Tim Connolly (knee) and Jochen Hecht (knee), while the Senators are missing key components in goalie Dominik Hasek (groin), forward Martin Havlat (shoulder) and center Mike Fisher (ankle).

The players who remain on both sides know what's at stake -- being listed atop the standings in the Sunday morning paper.

"We know that we're going to have to play our best to beat them," Sabres center Paul Gaustad said. "We're up for the challenge and excited about it."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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