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Sabres don't get mad, they get even

It's safe to say opposing NHL teams will think twice about cheap-shotting any Sabres once the tape of this game makes its way around the league.

Go ahead. Run one of them from behind while he's skating harmlessly to his own bench, the way Washington's young Alex Ovechkin did to Daniel Briere on Dec. 2. Or sucker-punch a Sabre in the head when he's not looking, the way Nashville's Scott Nichol did to Jaroslav Spacek a week ago.

Just keep in mind, you might get what the Capitals did Tuesday night at HSBC Arena -- a form of retaliation that's more powerful and persuasive than a punch, or anything you'll to see in the latest installment of the Rocky Balboa chronicles.

True to their word, the Sabres didn't go after Ovechkin. They had more ambitious plans, like beating the stuffing out of his team. They scored the equivalent of a first-round knockout, netting six goals in the first 11 minutes and coasting to a 6-3 humiliation of the Caps.

You want retaliation? After giving up the fourth Buffalo goal, Caps goalie Brent Johnson smashed his stick to pieces on the crossbar and heaved the shaft down the ice before getting pulled. Surely that was more satisfying for Sabres fans -- and more humane -- than seeing someone smash a stick over Ovechkin's noggin.

This is how a great hockey team responds to being bullied, not with fists and violence but with speed and skill. Six goals in the first 10:57 made the case that the Sabres will not be trifled with.

"We can't go around policing the league," said goalie Ryan Miller. "We have to worry about playing hockey, and we did a great job of just letting our hockey speak tonight."

Ovechkin did score a goal, his 25th. After beating Miller, he cupped his hand to his ear to taunt the Buffalo crowd, which booed the talented Muscovite from the first minute to the last.

"He's a proud kid," Miller said. "The fans were on him all night and that was the only way he could answer back. I'm not going to get up and fist pump after stopping him on a breakaway. To each his own. He'll start to figure out what it's all about. The league needs a little bit of that."

The NHL needs more gifted, flamboyant stars if it hopes to sell its sport to a largely indifferent American public. Ovechkin is an audacious talent. On separate occasions, he told Briere and Chris Drury he'd be willing to fight if they so desired.

Clearly, the Sabres didn't appreciate Ovechkin's hit on Briere early this month. But they weren't eager to fight. They were mainly angry with themselves for their shabby play in that 7-4 loss in Washington and for their uneven play in December -- what Briere referred to as "spinning their wheels."

"We were extremely motivated," said Drury, who had four points. "Lindy [Ruff] reminded us all day how they took it to us down there in Washington."

When sufficiently motivated, the Sabres are a scary team. They lost no time reminding their fans why an evening at HSBC Arena has become the hottest ticket in town. They had a two-game home losing streak to inspire them. They had Ovechkin on the ice.

They weren't playing any chumps Tuesday, either. The Caps came in with the third-fewest road losses in the NHL. They were in the midst of their longest road winning streak in five years. So you figured the Sabres would play their best game.

The Sabres obliged. They put together one of those explosive stretches when it seems they can score at will. They have set a ridiculously high standard for themselves. But at times, they are still able to exceed it.

As the Caps discovered, it's never a good idea to underestimate these guys, or to get them mad.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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