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Sabres mania grips Buffalo fans Hockey fever intensifies as quest for Cup starts on solid winning note

One Team. One City. One Goal.

Playoff hockey, the quest for the Stanley Cup and the city's first major sports championship returned to Buffalo on Thursday night, and Buffalo Sabres mania was everywhere.

A seemingly unending stream of rabid Sabres fans donned jerseys and hoisted large replicas of the Stanley Cup as they made a unified trek down Washington Street toward Party on the Plaza, outside HSBC Arena, preceding the first game of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the downstate rival New York Islanders. The Sabres won the first test, 4-1.

Those traveling in cars shared in Buffalo spirit. Many flew Sabres flags from their windows and honked their car horns to the "Let's Go Buffalo" cheer along the way.

Some cars were fully painted with Buffalo Sabres emblems. Those that weren't almost certainly had Sabres flags flying from their windows. Ravenous Sabres fans cleaned out 35 pounds of hot dogs and hamburgers from a street vendor an hour before game time.

Sabres fever has transfixed the area for more than a year. Thursday showed it was a full-blown epidemic with no signs of subsiding.

"Everyone from little kids to 80-year-old women are saying, 'Go Sabres' -- it's awesome," said Paul DeLuca of Orchard Park. "It's one of the things that brings us all together."

DeLuca, along with several close friends, dressed in large blue and gold wigs and Sabres jerseys and carried an inflatable Stanley Cup. Replicas of Lord Stanley's prized chalice were ubiquitous at the pregame party.

One youngster, 14-year-old Mike Cervino of Cheektowaga, even dressed up as one.

Cervino turned a metal garbage can upside down and fashioned a foil replica of the Cup to wear over his head. Of course, he also cut out a piece to let him see and breathe.

"We're all here to support the Sabres," Cervino said. "It's like there's a disease sweeping through Buffalo."

Rick Martin, the star left winger of the fabled French Connection, smiled during the game as he talked about the atmosphere around the arena and the city.

"Everywhere you go, there's a buzz," Martin said. "It's kind of like when we played."

Martin said hockey players are definitely dialed into the community's frenzy for the team.

"It's very important," Martin said. "It actually does put goose bumps on the back of your neck."

There were plenty of those to go around when the Sabres unveiled a stirring pregame video featuring the team, its fans and the city, to the Goo Goo Dolls singing, "Better Days."

Fans say they're drawn to the team -- not just because of its success -- but because of the positive feeling it has brought to a city that's starving to feel good about itself.

One fan, Cori Smith of Orchard Park, who served three years with the Navy in Japan, was discharged in time for the end of the hockey season and playoffs.

"Over there, the games were on at 8 a.m. I took off every day to watch," Smith said. "I said that I have to be there next year, I just have to."

Smith, draped in Sabres gear and sporting a yellow hockey helmet, was with a group of buddies who planned to dress in full uniform and proudly head up to their 300-level seats. Playoff hockey, Smith said, is a whole different animal than the regular season.

"You get goose bumps," Smith said. "I can't sit around all day doing nothing. All I do is think about this."

Then there were Derek Evoy of Depew and Carrie Tatara of Newstead. The couple said they hoped they would be able to put the words "Stanley Cup Champions" to their Sabres-themed wedding this fall.

"Hockey is what got us interested in each other," Evoy said.

The two met during a post-season game during the era of Dominik Hasek. Their love affair with each other and the Sabres has blossomed since then.

So much so, that the attendants at their wedding are allowed to wear one of two outfits: Buffalo Sabres blue and gold formal wear or a Sabres jersey. As for the top of their wedding cake? A Sabres insignia.

Twelve-year-old Patrick Keane insists there's an easy explanation for all those fans who braved the 30-something degree drizzle outside the arena.

"You don't want to be alone, people in Buffalo stick together," Patrick chattered. "Anything to watch the Sabres."

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View the Sabres' new video with the Goo Goo Dolls at www.buffalonews.com

e-mail: tpignataro@buffnews.com

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