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With Blake on the loose, New York is dangerous

The decision before Garth Snow was to be either sign Jason Blake to a long-term contract or trade him before the winger became an unrestricted free agent. Instead, the New York Islanders rookie general manager did neither, confirming his best move all season was doing nothing.

Captain Alexei Yashin draws more attention because people compare his skill to his production and determine whether it's commensurate with his contract. Winger Miroslav Satan was the Islanders' marquee free agent after the lockout. Goalie Rick DiPietro signed a mind-numbing 15-year contract before the season.

But the Isles' best all-around player? Jason Blake.

Blake was among many little men who emerged when the rules were changed after the lockout. The 33-year-old winger is coming off the best regular season of his career, with 40 goals and 69 points, staggering numbers even for him. The potential was there, but he had never recorded more than 28 goals or 57 points until this season.

"I knew I could score if I got the opportunity and was put into a situation," Blake said by telephone this week. "I'm not going to tell you I knew I could score 40 goals, but I knew I could score. But obviously 40 goals is a milestone and a great accomplishment. I never dreamed of scoring 40 goals."

The Buffalo Sabres are aware of his ability, too, which could become a source of their nightmares when their best-of-seven series begins tonight in HSBC Arena. Backup goalie Wade Dubielewicz led the Isles to four critical victories to close out the season, but New York wouldn't have had a sniff of the postseason without Blake.

At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, he's among the fastest players in the league with the puck on his stick. He can wiggle through traffic as well as anyone, has a quick release and a terrific shot. Otherwise, he's just an average player. In truth, he's capable of taking over the series if the Sabres don't contain him.

Buffalo's best chance of slowing him down, strangely enough, is speeding up the game and forcing Blake to play defense against them. Simply, he can't score when he's trying to stop the Sabres' up-tempo attack. But he's also dangerous in transition.

"He's a guy who's high on our radar," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "We know that we can't let him run loose with the scoring chances. We have to be aware of him when he's on the ice. The type of gap our defense has to set against him maybe can't be quite as tight because if he gets a step on you, he can beat you."

Blake was known mostly as a solid but unspectacular player before putting together his best season. Speculation was rampant that the Islanders would trade Blake, who appeared ticketed for the Detroit Red Wings before the deadline. He would have been a good addition to most any playoff team but instead helped the Islanders get there.

His reward will come after the season when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. The NHL All-Star and former U.S. Olympian pocketed $1.558 million this season. His salary for next season will double most likely.

"He's a guy who can change a game with just one shift," Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere said. "You have to be careful when he's on the ice. He's exactly what the new NHL is all about. He's a smaller player with lots of skill, who's fast and is able to use his speed. He can score from pretty much anywhere on the ice."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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