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Hockey frenzy ratchets up to next level

It's getting hot in here, and it has more to do with the Buffalo Sabres than with the recent spring warm-up.

Sabres fever is continuing to rise ahead of the opening game of Round Two of the National Hockey League playoffs Wednesday night against the New York Rangers in HSBC Arena.

"I think more people are more pumped up now than they were for the finals in '99 because of the momentum that has built through the season. It's just wonderful," said Darryl Carr, owner of Cobblestone Bar at 130 South Park Ave., in the shadow of the arena.

The Sabres dispatched the New York Islanders to the golf course Friday night and will face the Rangers in Games One and Two in HSBC Arena on Wednesday and Friday. Games Three and Four will follow in Madison Square Garden on Sunday and next Tuesday.

If necessary, Game Five would be played back in Buffalo on May 4, with Games Six and Seven split between New York and Buffalo, on May 6 and 8, respectively.

The face-off between the hockey clubs from New York State's No. 1 and No. 2 cities set the stage Monday for a possible friendly wager between Mayors Byron W. Brown of Buffalo and Michael R. Bloomberg of New York City. But when Brown's office called to set one up, Bloomberg's office declined. "I hope Mayor Bloomberg's reluctance to wage a bet is not a sign of his lack of confidence in the Rangers' chances against the Sabres," Brown said.

Enthusiasm for the second round was evident in HSBC Arena on Monday morning, as Sabres players and staff waited for schedule details and began gearing up for the opening game.

"No matter how many times you've gone through it, it never gets old. It is always a thrill," said Sabres communications chief Michael M. Gilbert.

As in the first round, the games of Round Two were sold out even before the Sabres took the ice to start their playoff run. While the team has no tickets to sell, Gilbert said, resourceful fans are finding ways to get their hands on the hottest tickets in town.

"Our Replay service, where our season-ticket holders can sell unwanted tickets, has been really popular," Gilbert said. "And we know there are tickets changing hands through other Internet sites."

Monday, even before the exact game days and times were announced by the NHL, nearly 400 Round Two tickets were up for grabs on eBay. But the seats won't come cheap. Ticket prices ranged from $49 for a single seat to Game Six in Madison Square Garden, to $1,250 for a pair at center ice in HSBC Arena for Game One.

Stubhub, another Internet ticket reseller, had an inventory of several hundred tickets for Round Two, many priced in the $200-to-$300 range. That Web site also offers futures options for Sabres fans who are banking on seeing their team in the Stanley Cup Finals in June.

For $3,999, die-hard fans can ensure they are a witness to hockey history for Round Four/Game Seven. The ticket price is refundable if Buffalo doesn't make it to the final round.

The Sabres will continue their popular Party in the Plaza festivities, starting with music and other activities outside HSBC Arena before all home games and followed by the games shown live on an outdoor video screen. An estimated 4,000 fans took advantage of the outdoor viewing during Friday night's series finale against the Islanders.

"As we go deeper into the playoffs and the weather improves, we expect the plaza crowd to keep growing," Gilbert said. "People really seem to enjoy being right outside and being part of the action."

The big outdoor crowd has been a bonus for Cobblestone Bar, just around the corner, which typically sees its customers disappear when the game starts.

"We normally get a big pre- and postgame crowd, and have maybe five people in here during the game," owner Darryl Carr said. "But with so many fans not having tickets, we're getting a huge crowd that stays to watch the game."

Local hospitality officials, who saw an uptick in business as hockey fans spent time in Buffalo hotels and restaurants during the opening round of the playoffs, expect increased visits from out-of-towners in Round Two.

"Based on what we see during the regular season, we anticipate more business from Rangers fans than we did from Islanders fans," said Michael Marsch, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.

"I can't disclose who is staying with us, but we are looking forward to more hockey-related business," Marsch said. "It grows with each round as more fans, more media and more league personnel come to town. We love to see this continue through June."

Richard Geiger of the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau is confident the Rangers crowd will come. "They've got the means and can just jump on JetBlue and be up here," he said.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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