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Sabres to get reacquainted with Isles Three of five games against rising team

Folks in Sabreland, including the Buffalo players who will face them three times in the next five games, probably need a primer on the New York Islanders, so here it goes:

* They rank next-to-last in the Eastern Conference and the NHL, ahead of only the free-falling New Jersey Devils.

* They have a 13-22-7 record, made worse by their three-game winless skid (0-2-1) and bolstered by the 7-2-1 run before it.

* They are on their second coach of the season, with Jack Capuano getting the interim tag Nov. 15 after the firing of Scott Gordon. They are 9-12-4 under Capuano.

* The top scoring line consists of center John Tavares (team leader with 15 goals and 30 points), left wing Matt Moulson (14 goals) and right wing P.A. Parenteau (the P.A. stands for Pierre-Alexandre).

* Center Zenon Konopka, from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., is the NHL's runaway leader in penalty minutes with 143, including 65 from his 13 fighting majors.

* They really, really don't like being called "doormats."

The primer comes because the Sabres face the Islanders for the first time this season tonight in Nassau Coliseum, one of three matchups in the next nine days. The Isles visit Buffalo on Friday, and the Sabres return to Long Island on Jan. 23.

"They're taking pride in trying to work hard, and it's showed," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Friday. "It's shown up in the win category. They've played some good games recently, and I think as a team they've turned the corner. Right now they're a tough opponent for anybody."

Konopka certainly thinks so, and he's not shy about sharing his thoughts.

He was watching television and enjoying his morning coffee this week when he heard the announcers on TSN call the Isles "perennial doormats." Konopka saw a couple of commentators from the Canadian sports station in the stands at Thursday's morning skate, and he stopped to yell at them.

"We're not a doormat anymore! Stop calling us a doormat!"

"Yes, we take issue with being called a doormat," Konopka said after the skate. "We have a good group of young guys that are making news and playing hard and playing well. So let's talk about us being a little underrated instead of a doormat."

He should've been in Northtown Center in Amherst for the Sabres' practice. He'd have thought he was on a Stanley Cup contender.

"They're a team that given their position they're dangerous," defenseman Steve Montador said. "The reason I say they're going to be dangerous is you can't take them lightly. You can't assume that points represent what a team looks like.

"There are teams that aren't in the playoffs that are good teams. Florida's playing really hard, and we're playing really hard. There's teams that aren't in the picture at the moment, but there's a lot of understanding that every team can win at any time."

Added center Paul Gaustad: "From what I've heard, they're young and they work extremely hard. It's going to be a challenge."

That said, the Sabres need to beat the teams below them if they want to improve their 10th-place spot. The schedule gives them an opportunity to extend their 5-1-1 streak.

Ruff, though, refuses to look at the matchups as an easy stretch. The Isles' recent run included victories over playoff teams such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Montreal, as the coach was quick to point out.

"Check the Islanders' record," Ruff said. "Check who they've beat recently. If you don't play well from Team One to 15 in the East, you're not going to win. We've got to do our part first."

The Islanders have improved their record with help from special teams. During the last seven games, their power play is revving at 40 percent and their penalty kill is stopping opponents 95 percent of the time.

"I think over the last month or so that we've been trying to stick to our game plan, guys have shown some belief in one another and they're playing hard," Capuano said. "We always respect our opponent, but right now we're trying to worry about how we have to play."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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