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Scrimmages enliven Sabres camp

The intensity is something to behold. The entire roster of the Buffalo Sabres -- from time-tested veterans to minor-league prospects to wide-eyed junior players -- is scrimmaging as if the regular season were under way. Players are shouting encouragement, swearing in disgust and doing whatever it takes to win.

Interestingly, that passion was born from a fun, lazy day in the office.

The Sabres' training camp roster this week consists of 54 players, a high number that begged for division. The Sabres decided if they were going to split the group in three, they may as well have fun doing it.

Members of the coaching staff, scouting department and business side gathered and conducted a fantasy draft. One by one, each of the three groups plucked names off the roster and welcomed them to their team.

"There were some guidelines to the draft, obviously, with the number of players and the positions we wanted, but we wanted them to have fun with this," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "Everybody likes to play coach or manager, and we all got together. As the draft was going, there was some kidding going on, so it was good.

"I think that was part of the fun of putting all this together."

Each team needed a name, so the groups delved into Sabres lore.

The 19 players selected by the business side are known as Team Fleming, which honors the late Reggie Fleming, who played on the original Sabres of 1970-71. The scouting department stayed in house with Team Khmylev, an 18-man squad named for amateur scout Iouri Khmylev, who spent four seasons with the Sabres in the 1990s. The 17 players picked by the coaches go by Team Playfair in honor of longtime defenseman and alumni chief Larry Playfair.

A picture of each former player is posted in the HSBC Arena dressing rooms, and the "owners" made it clear much is expected of their teams.

"It shows that they're having a little fun with this camp," forward Marcus Foligno said. "Obviously, we have to have fun with it as well."

The squads took part in a round-robin scrimmage tournament. They faced each other once over three days, with three points at stake in each game. First, they played five-on-five for 35 minutes. Then they squared off in a 10-minute four-on-four contest. The days concluded with a shootout competition.

"It puts a lot of pressure on each individual game when you get a point for each one," defenseman Nathan Paetsch said.

The standings and scoring leaders were posted in the hallway leading to the dressing rooms. Results mattered, as the players discover today.

The third-place unit, Team Playfair, will go through a demanding practice. The other two teams get to scrimmage again at 12:30 p.m. to decide the camp champion. The event is free to the public.

Team Fleming -- featuring Thomas Vanek, Tim Connolly, Craig Rivet and Nathan Gerbe, who has a tournament-best three goals -- is favored after winning the round robin with four points. Team Khmylev, with Ryan Miller, Jason Pominville, Toni Lydman and Tyler Myers, had 2.5 points to edge the two points secured by Team Playfair. (Full rosters are available at the Sabres Edge blog on BuffaloNews.com.)

It's clear the players want to win. Foligno almost sent defenseman Dennis Persson over the boards with a hard check Monday. Foligno was then run over Tuesday by defenseman Brayden McNabb. Goaltender Patrick Lalime praised his teammates from the bench after a penalty kill and exhorted Derek Roy to win a late faceoff. Coach James Patrick screamed for his players to get the puck out in the final minute and also pulled his goalie in another game.

The hugs at each conclusion were genuine, and so was the disappointment.

"These are all professional athletes," said Paetsch, a member of Team Fleming. "They're very competitive people. That's why we all are where we are. You don't get to this point without being a competitive individual, whether you're playing ping-pong, basketball in the summer or you're back at camp. It's intense."

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Defensive prospect Matt Generous was injured Tuesday after forward Jacob Lagace crashed into the end boards with him while they chased a loose puck.

"We sent him for stitches. He took a cut like [Paul] Gaustad took on the ankle area," Ruff said, referring to an incident in February 2007 when his center was sliced by a skate and had his season ended because a tendon was nearly severed in two. "Hopefully, it didn't catch anything serious like Paul with a tendon or anything. We don't know for sure."

Generous signed with the Sabres in the spring after concluding his collegiate career at St. Lawrence. He played four games for Portland and figures to be a regular on the minor-league blue line.

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The Sabres play their first preseason game Thursday when the Washington Capitals visit the arena. Tickets range from $45 to $20, and up to four children 12-and-under receive half-price seats with the purchase of an adult ticket.

The Sabres are also offering a family pack of four tickets, four hot dogs, a bag of popcorn and quartet of sodas. A 300-level package is $85, while the lower two levels run $125.

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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