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Sabres get down to business Team turns attention to Friday's opener

Virtually all of the youngsters have taken off for their winter homes, be it in Portland, Maine, the Canadian junior leagues or Europe. One by one, the seven exhibition games have been scratched off the calendar.

Things are finally getting ratcheted up around HSBC Arena as regular-season mode began in earnest Tuesday. Coach Lindy Ruff led the Buffalo Sabres through a spirited 80-minute practice, his voice bellowing through the empty rink and his stick banging on the ice and boards, as the team began its prep for Friday's season opener here against Montreal.

From day one of training camp, Ruff's message has been to be ready from the season's opening faceoff. Last year, back-to-back losses to the lowly New York Islanders set a hugely negative tone.

Partly due to that 0-2 start, the Sabres were above .500 for just three days total prior to Thanksgiving.

"We've got to come out better than we did last year," said center Derek Roy. "The first game is huge to come out with a win here and use the crowd's energy. Even if we had a so-so start last season we would have made the playoffs, but we had a terrible start. And we're not looking for so-so this year."

"We didn't make the playoffs by four points and you look at those and they could have been our first two games," noted winger Jason Pominville. "You can't dig yourself into a hole like we did. It wasn't the start we wanted. We gave up nine goals against the Islanders [who were last in the Eastern Conference in scoring]. We weren't playing well defensively and we have to be sharp."

The Sabres finished 2-4-1 in the preseason and scored only 17 goals in the seven games. Jochen Hecht (three goals) was the only player to score more than twice and Ales Kotalik (two goals, four assists) was the only Sabre with more than four points. No one, however, is concerned.

"We definitely have the guys in the locker room that can score goals," said Pominville, who did not tally in his five exhibition outings. "We had to play defense first, but the goals will come. We know we have the personnel to do that. We're aware of our own zone and then we'll get the opportunities. We'll have to score more and our special teams have to be better. We know that."

For the preseason, Buffalo finished 14th in the NHL in power-play percentage at 17.4 (8 for 46) and 12th in penalty killing at 86.1 percent (31 of 36). Oddly enough, there wasn't much special teams success in the first and second periods of Buffalo's exhibition games; the Sabres were just 2 of 30 with the man advantage and their opponents were 1 of 20.

Ruff has been OK with the Sabres' defensive work in the preseason. They allowed 21 goals in the seven games -- but seven were in the opening loss in Toronto. Their average yield in the final six was just 2.33. That's the kind of play he wants to see, tighter defense as a way to create more offense.

"You throw out our first game and we're right at that two goals against mark," Ruff said. "You would argue it hurt our offense playing that way but I don't think it did. There were situations offensively we didn't take advantage of. I would argue our players were reluctant in the preseason to shoot more pucks on the net and take the plays that were there versus trying to make more plays, which hurt us offensively."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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