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Regier sees postseason within reach ; Sabres' progress has GM pleased

Darcy Regier is an unwavering believer in his team and players even in the worst of times. It stands to reason, then, that the Buffalo Sabres have him exuding faith now. They entered this week's All-Star break on a 9-3-1 run, and their general manager is enjoying the results.

"I think we're moving in the right direction," said Regier, who feels the team finally has turned the corner from conference afterthought to playoff hopeful. "I do. I think from attitude to work ethic to commitment as a group, it's been very positive."

The Sabres' 13-game upswing has brought them closer to an Eastern Conference playoff spot. They were 12 points behind the eighth-place team on the morning of Dec. 28. Since that night's victory in Edmonton, they've closed to within six points of the final postseason position.

The run has Regier ready for a playoff spring.

"I think right now this group is capable of making that push," he said Tuesday in Ottawa.

The Sabres went their separate ways Wednesday, and they won't be back together until practice Monday. Their next game is in Pittsburgh on Feb. 4, and with the flip of the calendar comes the sprint to the Feb. 28 trade deadline.

Despite their GM's confidence, the Sabres are nonetheless 10th in the 15-team conference. Their scoring is suspect, their defense has breakdowns and turnover binges, and their goaltender is no longer a Vezina Trophy candidate. Regier acknowledges changes could come by the end of next month.

"There may be some movement, but it's too early. We'll get a better indication as we get closer to it," said Regier, who expects a busy month league-wide. "You're going to see what you've seen in other years. You're going to see quite a bit of player movement at the deadline. Who it is or what the price is right now is an unknown. You can read the papers and see some teams are making their decisions right now. Others will wait for the deadline.

"One of the hard parts isn't just finding good players but players that fit. That's the challenge."

Some of the biggest challenges facing the Sabres following the All-Star break involve their ability to remain consistent and their goaltending/team defense.

Buffalo's three losses during their 13-game run were brutal. They were outclassed by Philadelphia and the New York Islanders (twice), leaving doubts they are steady enough to compete on a regular basis down the stretch. Four of the nine wins came in overtime or a shootout, so it's not like the Sabres are dominating.

"The competitiveness of the league is so tight that on any given night if you're not ready to play you're going to be on the wrong side of the score sheet," Regier said. "I think that's a big deal."

The Sabres' chances would improve if Ryan Miller's numbers did. Though not at fault at times because the Sabres have struggled to adhere to their defensive system, Miller can't hide from a goals-against average (2.68) that ranks 27th in the NHL and a save percentage (.913) that is 24th.

"He's been good, and I think he'll get better," Regier said. "These are areas and situations he thrives in."

Regier's week without the Sabres is scheduled to include meetings with his professional and amateur scouts, and possibly a trip East to watch the Portland Pirates play in Providence and Connecticut.

***

The Sabres have announced a time change for their Feb. 20 home game against Washington. The Sunday matinee will begin at 12:30 p.m. rather than the originally scheduled 3 p.m. start.

The change was made to accommodate NBC's "Hockey Day in America" coverage. NBC will broadcast four games, with the first three shown regionally with staggered starts. All viewers will begin with the same game before some viewers are taken to their regional game. The staggered starts will allow for live look-ins of the other games during intermissions. The fourth game, Pittsburgh at Chicago, will be broadcast nationally.

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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