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Year of the team status is confirmed

There's little doubt that 2006 will be remembered in Buffalo Sabres annals as the year of the team. The Sabres were almost without peer when it came to winning, and they did it without dynamic individual efforts.

With the calendar year coming to an end, the NHL on Wednesday released statistical leaders for 2006. Only one player -- goaltender Ryan Miller -- appeared in the top 10 for individual stats, but it didn't take long to spot the Sabres in the league standings.

Through Tuesday, Buffalo had the league's third-best points percentage (percentage of games won or tied after regulation). The Sabres were 52-20-7 for a points percentage of .703. They were the top team in the Eastern Conference, trailing only Detroit and Anaheim from the Western. The Red Wings were 53-16-10 for a percentage of .734, while Anaheim went 54-17-12 for a percentage of .723.

Only Anaheim, Detroit and San Jose (53) had more victories than the Sabres. Detroit had played the same number of games (79), while the Ducks (83) and Sharks (82) played more.

Miller made the top 10 four times. He was fourth in wins with 38 and fifth in points percentage at .698 (38-15-5). He was 10th in both minutes played (3,555) and shots faced (1,812).

Among the league leaders were Washington's Alexander Ovechkin in goals (54) and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby in points (115). New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur led in wins (49) while Dominik Hasek of Ottawa and Detroit had the best goals-against average (1.94).

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The Sabres are likely to have three starters and multiple substitutes at next month's All-Star Game in Dallas. What would it mean to Lindy Ruff to be able to coach his players?

"It would mean I wouldn't get five days off," he said with a grin.

Ruff is nearly a mortal lock to be named either head coach or assistant for the Eastern Conference. The teams that lead each conference Jan. 5 have their coach selected for the top job, while the conference's second-place coach is named the assistant.

The Sabres have been atop the East all season. They are 26-7-3 for a points percentage of .806.

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Speaking of the All-Star Game, Rory Fitzpatrick -- as of now -- would not be going.

The Vancouver Canucks defenseman fell to third in the voting among Western Conference blue-liners. Voting at NHL.com closes Tuesday, and the top two defensemen are elected as starters.

Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer leads with 540,380 votes, and Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom moved into second with 522,345. Fitzpatrick, a write-in candidate who received a flurry of attention thanks to VoteForRory.com, is at 486,842.

The frivolity that accompanied Fitzpatrick being in second place took a hit last week when two of Canada's more influential hockey names -- Wayne Gretzky and Don Cherry -- spoke out against the write-in campaign.

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One day after skating away from the Washington Capitals, a group of Sabres enjoyed a second straight rout in HSBC Arena. This time, it came against their teammates.

The Sabres often surround the net against one goalie at the end of practice and try to knock home a goal. It's usually even, but forwards Adam Mair, Jiri Novotny, Paul Gaustad, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek scored four straight against the Sabres' defensemen and celebrated with group pile-ups.

"We dominated those 'D,' " Roy said.

Goalie Martin Biron played with the forwards in the first session and was robbed by Miller.

"I'm a poor forward," Biron said. "I stand in the crease and I take a beating."

Usually, it's from his dressing room antagonist, Brian Campbell.

"I don't worry about watching his offensive skills," the defenseman said. "I'm all about trying to hit him."

Responded Biron: "I'm the same way. All I want to do is kill 'Soup.' "

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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