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Sabres hope it's good time for a slump

It was clear at Wednesday's pregame skate that Lindy Ruff and his players had adopted an optimistic company line. As bad as the Sabres had played lately, they could take comfort in the fact that it was occurring in the regular season, not the playoffs.

"This could be a good thing for us," said Daniel Briere.

They'd better be careful, though, before it becomes too much of a good thing. For the third straight game, the Sabres played an abysmal stretch of defensive hockey, surrendering four goals in an 11:32 span of the second period of a 4-3 home loss to the Hurricanes.

Yes, they scored three goals in the third period to make a game of it. It's their first three-game losing streak since November. They're a remarkably resilient bunch who can leave you breathless even in defeat. The fans nearly tore the roof off HSBC Arena during those final, frantic moments.

The Sabres were the best team in the NHL for a 50-game stretch. You can't fake that kind of run. A week ago, they were on an eight-game winning streak and you wondered if they'd ever lose again. The law of averages was bound to kick in sooner or later, especially against the likes of Ottawa and Carolina.

Ruff and Briere are right. If they're going to stumble, it's better for it to happen now. Three-game losing streaks tend to be fatal in the playoffs. But whatever the timing, these three games have been alarming. The Sabres faced three swift, strong foes, including the top two teams in the East, and the defense wasn't up to the task.

It was easy to dismiss it when they were scoring six goals a night, but they began to lose their way defensively soon after the trade deadline. They have given up 30 goals in their last eight games. You don't win Stanley Cups that way.

"It's a little troubling," said Mike Grier. "I think when you start scoring five or six goals a night, you get lulled into a false sense of belief. As a team, we let things slide. Maybe this stretch will help us get our heads screwed back on."

They abandoned Ryan Miller during that forgettable second period. Dmitri Kalinin was dreadful. Henrik Tallinder had a rough night. Ruff said the forwards deserve a share of the blame. But he admitted his defensemen have not been playing well. Sabres' "D" has been solid for most of the year. But lately, they've looked just good enough to get beat in a close Cup series.

Darcy Regier felt confident enough in his defense to sit idle at the NHL trade deadline. Presumably, Regier couldn't find a defenseman who could crack his top six, even though he had a prime trade asset in goalie Martin Biron. If Regier couldn't improve this "D," he wasn't trying very hard. Maybe he was worried about disrupting the Sabres' team chemistry. But the recent defensive meltdown can't be doing much for team chemistry.

Just a week ago, they were chasing the Senators for first overall in the East. Now, the immediate concern is holding off the Flyers (who closed to within five points Wednesday) for fourth place and assuring themselves home-ice advantage in the first round.

There's no shame in losing to the top teams. It's amazing that it took this long for a mini-crisis.

Still, they probably got too full of themselves during the winning streak. It seemed so easy, they began to think it was easy. They forgot how they got this far. They forgot who they were. They're a tough, hard-working team with the grit and self-belief to compensate for their lack of stars, particularly on the blue line.

It's not supposed to be easy for these guys. If they think teams are going to bow down to their speed and youth and chemistry in the playoffs, they're kidding themselves. If these three losses get that message through their heads, maybe it has been a good thing.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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