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Gaustad proves a chemistry catalyst Drury-Kotalik line jump-starts Sabres

It's almost like there has been an echo in the arenas lately. The announcers call out the names of Chris Drury and Ales Kotalik in the starting lineup, then minutes later the names ring through the speakers again.

That's what happens when instant chemistry results in instant goals.

The Buffalo Sabres placed Paul Gaustad on a line with Drury and Kotalik five games ago, and they have scored in three of them -- usually before the fans have settled into their seats. The trio combined for three goals in the opening 7 1/2 minutes of Wednesday's 6-3 rout of the Washington Capitals. The first goal came 3:33 into the game, and it could be wondered what took so long. They scored 33 seconds after the opening faceoff against Nashville, one game after scoring at the 34-second mark versus Montreal.

They'll get a chance to jump-start the Sabres again tonight when they face the Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes in HSBC Arena.

"The last four games we felt good out there and did some good things together," Kotalik said Wednesday. "You have to work on it all the time. We've been trying."

The line, established after the grouping of Drury, Kotalik and Jiri Novotny stalled, has combined for six goals, eight assists and 37 shots in the past four games. Kotalik has been the most visible. He has four goals on 24 shots since the line was created. He had no goals on 23 shots in the 12 games prior.

"Both of them have looked for Al," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "They know that when Al starts to heat up, there's not many times you can stop that shot."

Drury, who has been searching for steady linemates throughout his career, tied a career high Wednesday with four points, including two goals.

Gaustad has just one assist in the five games, but Ruff credited his play with creating the goals. The 6-foot-4 winger is able to control the puck down low and open up space for the others.

"He brings so much energy, so much life, so much positive energy," Drury said. "He's always upbeat on the bench. He's pretty vocal, reminding guys of where to be and what to do. He's been a great addition to us. He throws his body around and does the little things."

Maybe even more impressive than the line's offensive production is its defense. While being matched against the opposition's top scoring line, the trio has a cumulative rating of plus-9. They were even against Ottawa's Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley, and they were plus-7 against the Caps' Alexander Ovechkin. Only once has one of the players had a minus rating; Drury was minus-1 against Nashville.

"Playing against the top lines is fun," Gaustad said. "It kind of gets you ready for the game because you know you're going to have to play your best to play against those guys."

One of tonight's subplots will be seeing who the trio matches up against. The Hurricanes have won five games in a row, and their top two lines are potent.

Rod Brind'Amour -- Drury's adversary throughout the Eastern Conference finals last season -- has been skating with Ray Whitney and Justin Williams, who has points in eight straight games. The line of Eric Staal centering Erik Cole and Cory Stillman is nearly as dangerous.

Both teams will have extra motivation. It's the final meeting of the season, and the Sabres won the first three games. The Hurricanes will want to avoid a sweep, while the Sabres are relishing the chance to break out the brooms against the team that ended their Cup dreams last spring.

"We'd definitely like to show that we can take them all this year," Ruff said. "That would be something nice for the team."

The game -- the second of a four-game homestand for the Sabres -- is sold out.

"We haven't been able to beat Buffalo this year, and I'm looking forward to playing them," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said. "I know the players are."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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