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Gerbe tuning up his game ; After slow start, good times starting to roll

Back in his school days, Nathan Gerbe was the life of the Boston College dressing room. He'd stand up and sing Rascal Flatts songs, do whatever he could to bring energy to the team.

The Buffalo Sabres, a quiet group that quickly disperses after games and practices, don't foster an environment that allows for such regular displays of jocularity. Still, Gerbe manages to get some attention.

"I haven't heard him bust out any Rascal Flatts this year, but he gets a little weird sometimes when some music gets on," fellow forward Tyler Ennis said with a laugh. "He likes to lip-sync a little bit. It's a little bit creepy and kind of weirds some guys out."

Gerbe is only 23 years old and in his first full season with the Sabres, so maybe he's not secure enough to loosen up the vocal chords in an NHL dressing room. It doesn't mean he's lost his desire for good times at the rink.

"It's still something you love," Gerbe said this week. "I enjoy coming to the rink every day. It's the highlight of my day, coming here and hanging out. I guess it's a job in some aspects, but it's fun for me. It's something I've always wanted to do, and I want to do it for a long time.

"I don't know if I'm singing in front of the guys, but it's a lot of fun. These guys are great and I enjoy coming to the rink. You start to feel comfortable, and guys make you feel comfortable."

He's never looked more at ease on the ice, at least not at this level.

Since returning to the lineup Jan. 11, Gerbe has joined Thomas Vanek as the Sabres' top players. He has five goals and seven points in the eight games, including four goals in the last four.

"The reason he was here this year was we thought he could get on the score sheet, and the puck's finally starting to go in for him," coach Lindy Ruff said.

It took awhile for Gerbe to get going. It took him 21 games to score. He missed eight games with a fractured jaw, another nine as a healthy scratch. He got his opportunity in the middle of the month after a four-game benching, and he's given it his best shot.

Actually, he's given it 35 shots. The difference between the productive Gerbe and the one who rarely made an impact can be found in the shot department. He's averaging 4.4 per game since returning to the lineup. He took just 51 in his opening 24 games, an average of 2.1.

"The opportunities are going in now, opportunities that were there early in the year that he maybe would have passed up on," Ruff said. "He's shooting now. He's shooting more, shooting with more purpose, and that's helped him."

Gerbe's output coincides with a rise in outbursts. The 5-foot-5, 178-pounder is the youngest of six children, so he's always scrapped and competed. He's done it more lately, with notable encounters against Montreal's Scott Gomez and Boston's Zdeno Chara, the 6-9, 270-pound behemoth.

"He doesn't like people saying he's small, so he'll often get into a battle with guys," Ennis said. "It's good to see. He's got a lot of tenaciousness."

In order to make his game sing, Gerbe will have to continue that style of play when the Sabres return to the ice next Friday in Pittsburgh.

"It's good to cash in on some opportunities, but you've got to keep it going," Gerbe said. "You've got to keep working hard each night and try to be the hardest-working guy out there. That's my goal."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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