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Sabres determined to stay focused

The Buffalo Sabres led the Eastern Conference from wire to wire, and they admit that's pretty cool.

The wire they're truly interested in, however, is the one that will hoist a banner they can't earn for another two months.

Although they've already wrapped up the Northeast Division and Eastern Conference regular-season titles and their last three games happen to be against the three worst teams in the East, the Sabres insist they'll run out the string with playoff intensity.

The Sabres are coming off a near-perfect game in their last matchup against a postseason team. They went on the road Tuesday night and handled the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-1.

Left to play are the Boston Bruins tonight in HSBC Arena and afternoon away games against the Washington Capitals on Saturday and the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday.

"We definitely want to keep our foot on the gas pedal," Sabres winger Jason Pominville said. "We want to get ourselves ready for the playoffs. We're playing teams that aren't really battling for the playoffs, but they're playing for pride right now. For the most part, we have to worry about what we're doing and get ourselves ready for a week from now."

Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff claimed he would pull no punches before the postseason. The reigning Jack Adams Award winner said he wouldn't rest any of his players and wouldn't divert from previous plans to use goaltender Ryan Miller.

"They are things you can be proud of, a division championship and a conference championship," Ruff said. "But they are little things in the big picture.

"We know how difficult the postseason is going to be. We want to use these last four games, counting [Tuesday] night, as our mini-playoff series leading into the playoffs that's going to get us to a level of play we know other teams can bring it to."

The Sabres have been reluctant to profess any desire to win the President's Trophy, which goes to the team that finishes with the best regular-season record and guarantees home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup final. In a rare moment of candidness, defenseman Jaroslav Spacek last week admitted it was an objective.

The Sabres have 109 points, one fewer than the first-place Detroit Red Wings, who have played one more game. The Red Wings finish with a home-and-home set against Chicago Blackhawks tonight and Saturday afternoon.

But after Wednesday's practice in HSBC Arena, the Sabres mostly were indifferent about the President's Trophy even though it's the last regular-season team honor they can earn.

The Sabres can stitch four banners for 2006-07. Tapestry No. 1 was the divisional crown they won Tuesday. Next could be the President's Trophy. After that might come the Eastern Conference postseason title and then the Stanley Cup.

"Our goal at the start of the year was the conference, and now that we got that, obviously, we're looking around at what the other teams are doing," Pominville said. "We have an eye on [the President's Trophy], but whatever happens, happens."

Rather than talk about gunning for the President's Trophy, the Sabres would rather discuss the pragmatic approach of simply winning and winning and winning. If the Sabres can win out, then they will enter the postseason having won six of their last seven games.

"Our mentality is to go out and win the next three," Sabres winger Thomas Vanek said. "We talked about winning out these last four games. We did our job in Pittsburgh, and now we got three to go and get ready for the playoffs."

All three of their games are highly winnable. Against their remaining opponents, the Sabres are a combined 10-1 with two shootout losses. They've scored a combined 67 goals and given up 38.

The Sabres are 5-0 with two shootout losses against the Bruins, 2-1 versus the Capitals and 3-0 against the Flyers.

"I'm not concerned with a letup," Ruff said. "We're going to continue to work on our game and play he style that would help us play through the playoffs. That's our only focus.

"We're going to concentrate on the way we want to play. We're not taking any of these games for granted."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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