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Sabres, Ruff ready to celebrate Contract signings precede awards

Lindy Ruff's day will start with a news conference celebrating another contract. It might end with him celebrating another award.

The Buffalo Sabres coach and his longtime cohort, General Manager Darcy Regier, will announce this morning they have re-signed with the team. Shortly after, the Sabres' leaders will drive to Toronto for tonight's NHL awards ceremony. Ruff is a candidate for the Jack Adams Award, the hardware he won last year as the league's top coach.

"It'll be busy, but it'll be fun," Ruff said Wednesday.

He wouldn't comment on today's contract announcement, but he was eagerly anticipating the Toronto festivities (7 p.m., Versus; 8 p.m., Ch. 5).

"I didn't know what to expect last year when I went, but it turned out to be a real fun event to be at," he said.

Ruff won last season as a slight favorite, and it would be a minor upset should he top Pittsburgh's Michel Therrien or Vancouver's Alain Vigneault for a second straight honor. The Sabres were the NHL's top team in the regular season, but voters tend to prefer underdog stories, and Buffalo was expected to be among the elite.

"I think there's a little bit for the team that's been down and out that has the real good improvement from one year to the next," Ruff said. "Obviously, we're not in that category. But we at least surprised some people that we were able to maintain that high level of play the last two years."

Therrien is the chic choice after presiding over one of the top turnarounds in NHL history. The Penguins went 47-24-11 to earn 105 points, a 47-point improvement from the previous season -- the fourth-biggest jump ever. Few expected the team's young stars to galvanize so quickly.

Vigneault led the Canucks to a franchise-record 49 victories. They were a league-best 32-8-6 after Christmas.

"To see the improvement in Pittsburgh and the type of year they had, I don't necessarily think they were counted on to make the playoffs," Ruff said. "To put the run together they put together -- I think they had a [16]-game unbeaten streak -- that was a pretty impressive year they put together. You go to Vancouver, they turned it around. Vigneault did a tremendous job with them.

"I haven't handicapped [the award odds], but I've got it at 33 percent right now."

Sidney Crosby, meanwhile, has been linked to Wayne Gretzky since making junior hockey look like child's play. The comparisons will bloom further if the 19-year-old captures the Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP.

Crosby led the NHL with 120 points and is the youngest Hart finalist since the Great One in 1980. Gretzky, then 19, won his first of nine Hart trophies en route to a career that Crosby seems destined to mimic. Crosby is also the youngest ever nominated for the Lester B. Pearson Award, given to the most outstanding player as voted on by his peers.

"It's always nice when you win awards," Crosby said upon receiving the Art Ross Trophy as scoring leader. "I don't want to take anything away from them because they're accomplishments and something I'm proud of. But when you look back on your career, you want to be able to say you won the Stanley Cup. I think that's something that drives me every time I play, every summer and every season."

Crosby's competition for the Hart comes from two goaltenders accustomed to winning: New Jersey's Martin Brodeur and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo. Brodeur, a finalist for the third time in four seasons, set an NHL record with 48 victories to surpass Bernie Parent's 47-win campaign in 1973-74 (though Parent didn't have the benefit of shootout victories). Luongo matched the Philadelphia Hall of Famer with 47 wins, which included a 26-7-5 record when facing 30-plus shots.

Three other awards are too close to handicap. Three perennial contenders are nominated for best defenseman: Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom and Anaheim's Stanley Cup-winning duo of Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. The Vezina for best goalie will come down to Luongo or Brodeur. Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal are up for top rookie.

"I think that's a little bit the fun part of the evening," Ruff said. "There's a curiousity on who got voted for, and it's pretty neat the way the whole evening unfolds."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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