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Zubrus makes hockey's best team better

Dainius Zubrus says the only bad thing about his trade to Buffalo was being separated from his family. Zubrus is forever grateful to Lindy Ruff for giving him the occasional day off so he could spend time with his two young children back in Washington.

"It's pretty easy," Zubrus said after Thursday's practice at HSBC Arena. "I fly in the morning and get back at night. My son [Thomas] is 4 years old and my daughter [Emma] is 4 months. It's tough for my son. I talk to him on the phone and he asks me when I'm coming back. When I'm home, he jumps on my back and won't let go for the whole day."

Dad can relate. Two months ago, he jumped aboard this remarkable Sabres team and has no intention of letting go. Zubrus has been waiting too long. As an 18-year-old rookie with the Flyers, he reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1997. Ten years and three teams later, he's still waiting to win another playoff series.

Zubrus turns 29 in June. The native Lithuanian is still young. But he figures this might be his best chance to win a Cup. Zubrus has played with some gifted players, including Eric Lindros, Jaromir Jagr and Alex Ovechkin. But he has never been on a team quite like this one.

"The skill level of this team, going from one line to another, is definitely something that never happens," Zubrus said. "Even the good teams I've been on, there's always a first and second line. Then there's a checking line. But here, any of the four lines can score goals.

"When I played against this team, I knew it was very hard to concentrate on one line," he said. "You can put responsible defensive players against one line, but then another wave comes and you don't know who is going to hit you."

Early in his career, Zubrus was seen as an underachiever, a player who wasn't physical enough. That happens when you're 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, blessed with speed and skill. He didn't score 20 goals until 2005-06.

"People say that I didn't play as aggressively before," Zubrus said. "Well, I played centerman. How many centers play a real physical game? As a winger, you run around like crazy and finish checks. It's not that I didn't like the physical part. It's not that I was scared in any way."

It's hard to argue now. Zubrus has been a greater physical presence than anyone imagined. To use Ruff's pet expression, Zubrus has "played out of character," delivering punishing checks and pinpoint passes in equal measure. He has been an ideal complement for center Chris Drury, who had waited months for a winger to stake out a permanent home on his right side.

Zubrus said his new team has elevated his game. Daniel Briere contends that it's just the opposite.

"I think he makes us better," Briere said. "He's another piece of the puzzle that we needed. It's been tough for Chris, linemates-wise, all year. Finally, Zubrus comes in and they have that chemistry. That's big for our team and for every line. You have another line that can score big goals. It gives us another dimension."

That's a scary thought -- the best offensive team in hockey with an added dimension. But Zubrus has been a difference-maker. He has made at least one big play in every game of the playoffs, none bigger than when he dug the puck out from the Isles' net and fed Drury for a goal in Game Four. Heading into Thursday night, he was tied for the NHL lead in playoff assists with five.

No one will accuse General Manager Darcy Regier of failing to make his team better at the deadline this year. Regier said he never bought the notion that Zubrus was soft. He and Ruff both said it simply took Zubrus time to mature. It's that way with most young players.

"As you get older, you learn more about the game," Regier said. "You learn more about yourself. You learn to work harder and to fear less. I always use [former Sabre] James Patrick as the example. If you can play, and you like playing the game, you find a way to stay in the game and keep learning and get better."

Zubrus will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. He has recorded career highs in goals and points in successive seasons. He is smack in his prime. So he could be in for the contract of a lifetime and the odds of him remaining in Buffalo aren't great.

Still, Zubrus knows what a Cup could do for him. All he has to do is look to the locker to his right, the one belonging to Drury. A Cup would validate Zubrus as a competitive force, a great teammate and a winner.

"When you're with a winning team, the rest of your life gets better," Zubrus said. "Somehow, even a day without sun becomes a little sunnier. You're in a good mood all the time."

Like a lot of people in this town, he might be in for the ride of a lifetime.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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