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Sabres seek redemption at home of Devils

Continental Airlines Arena -- where the Buffalo Sabres' hopes for victory go to die.

Every team has an Achilles' heel, something or someplace that just brings out the worst. For the Sabres, that place is Continental Airlines Arena. The Sabres visit their nemesis tonight when they face the New Jersey Devils.

The only thing as ugly as the dark, empty seats at the Devils' home is the Sabres' record there. They are 0-7-1 over the past four seasons and have been outscored, 33-12.

"It hasn't been a building that's been kind to us," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "I can't off the top of my head remember winning in there. I just don't recall the last time we did."

The last victory "where Jimmy Hoffa is," as play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret famously said, was Feb. 22, 2001. Dominik Hasek earned his second shutout of the season in the arena, blanking the Devils, 1-0. Hasek gave the Sabres a 4-0 victory Nov. 11, 2000.

The drought has gone on so long that only three players -- Martin Biron, Maxim Afinogenov and Dmitri Kalinin -- have celebrated a Buffalo victory in front of the Devils' fans.

"It's just one of those places where . . . there's just no atmosphere," Biron said. "You go in that place and it's dead, and there's just nothing there. Not that it should make a difference when you play, but it does. You get that feeling of nothing."

The Sabres have scored more than two goals just once during their devilish skid. The last eight games include an 8-2 shellacking and three 4-1 losses.

"We've had some horrible games there and some tough losses. We just can't seem to win there," Ruff said. "I don't know what it is. Every team seems to have that one building or that one streak. . . . They've been a tough matchup for us in that building."

The Sabres aren't wallowing alone in their Meadowlands misery. The Devils are 107-49-21 at home over the past five seasons. They are 11-1-1 there this season, while the Sabres are 13-3 on the road.

"I'm sure for the Devils it's fine because it's the place where they won three Cups," Biron said. "But for anybody else in the league, playing in that building just reminds them of playing against the team that just trapped the way that they did in the late '90s. They put up a wall and didn't give you nothing."

There are actually two players in the Sabres' dressing room who have fond memories of the arena. Chris Drury used to go to games there as a kid, his family taking the 90-minute drive from Connecticut to watch his brother Ted play. Ryan Miller made his NHL debut in the arena, a 4-3 overtime loss Nov. 19, 2002.

"It didn't turn out the way that I wanted, but it was a lot of fun playing with [Martin] Brodeur in my first-ever game," Miller said. "He's one of the greatest goalies of all time."

It should be a fine duel between the two goaltenders. Brodeur was named the NHL's First Star on Monday after going 3-0 with a 0.65 goals-against average and .970 save percentage last week.

The Sabres do have something to look forward to tonight. Unless the Sabres and Devils meet in the playoffs, this is Buffalo's second-last visit to East Rutherford. The Devils are building an arena in downtown Newark, N.J., and it is expected to be completed by next fall.

"Certainly, the sooner that building is torn down or whatever, the better for us," Ruff said.

This edition of the Sabres, which returns to New Jersey on Feb. 3, embraces challenges. The guys in the dressing room are aware of the difficulty with the Devils, and they want to have something positive to say about the place where few good things have happened.

"That gives us something to shoot for," Drury said, "for the next two games there."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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