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Gerbe shooting up growth chart

Nathan Gerbe's season didn't begin turning around the night he scored two goals in five seconds against the Islanders, although that was an evening to remember. He took his place in the Sabres' record book for the fastest two goals Jan. 21 in a 5-2 loss to the lowly Isles, a defeat the winger called "embarrassing."

The first sign of better days ahead weren't obvious in the previous night, either, although he scored the tying goal in an impressive win over the Bruins. And it also wasn't found in the rematch against the Isles, when he scored the go-ahead goal and set up Tyler Myers' winner to give him four goals and five points over the three games.

Gerbe actually started skating in the right direction on a night that has been mostly forgotten -- a 2-1 overtime win Jan. 18 over the Canadiens in which his stat line read 0-0-0, as it has on many an unproductive evening this season -- just before the hot streak. Yes, that's when Nathan Gerbe first showed he had arrived with an edge.

He was the best player on the ice, an engaged nuisance all night. He took a run at Habs goaltender Carey Price. He face-washed Scott Gomez for bumping into Ryan Miller. He drew a high-sticking penalty from Gomez in the final minute. Gerbe was in their faces, in their heads and, after Jason Pominville scored in OT, in his glory.

Frankly, it was about time.

"It has so much to do with confidence," Gerbe said Wednesday. "If you believe in yourself and believe you can do it, you can make things happen and good things will happen. I know how good this league is. The big thing for me going into this season was to not lose confidence no matter what."

Gerbe insisted he never lost faith, but it had to be shaken early in the first half of the season when he had one skate on the fourth line and the other in the press box. He had no goals and five assists to show for the Sabres' first 33 games. He was late getting to loose pucks, not getting enough shots on net, generally ineffective and mostly invisible.

This was a guy the Sabres held up as a big part of their future? Heck, there were times early this season where he wasn't part of their present amid questions about his chances for survival in the NHL. Gerbe had 41 goals in 101 games over the previous two AHL seasons, but he appeared to be overmatched against the best players in the world.

The Sabres weren't expecting him to become a 40-goal scorer, but with his hands and talent they were banking on him to contribute something -- anything -- on the offensive end. Their patience and his persistence intersected Jan. 18 against the Habs, when it appeared Gerbe finally reached a point where he had had enough.

What you see now is a confident and consistent player who has been reading the play better and showing up with the necessary blend of talent, tenacity and toughness to make a difference. He's still getting fourth-line minutes, but lately he has been providing a pile of production for a desperate Sabres team.

"The more you play, the more you understand," Gerbe said. "When you're first coming into the league, the game is so fast and you think too much. When you do less thinking and react more to the play, you play more to your style."

Check the stats since Jan. 18, and you'll find Gerbe among the Sabres' leaders. He has 11 goals, tying him with Drew Stafford for most on the team over the same period, and 17 points over his last 27 games. It's no coincidence the Sabres are 16-8-4 over their last 28 games, counting one game in which Gerbe was a healthy scratch.

Gerbe has been terrific in the last seven games with five goals and seven points, so there's no way they could justify taking him out of the lineup when injured forwards Jochen Hecht and Patrick Kaleta return. He has 38 shots on goal in his last 12 games, 20 more than he had in his first 12 games.

And can we stop asking whether he's big enough to play in the NHL already? It doesn't matter that the 5-foot-5, 178-pound winger is shorter than half of the eighth grade. Martin St. Louis, generously listed at 5-8, 176, has recorded 80 points or more in five straight seasons. He played parts of four seasons before scoring 20 goals in a year. He has since won a Hart Trophy and a Stanley Cup and is among the NHL's most dependable players.

St. Louis has proven it's not the size of the player so much as the size of his heart, which brings us back to Gerbe. He had the only goal Tuesday against the same Canadiens when Lindy Ruff threw him out there inside the final minute to preserve the lead. Gerbe made a gritty defensive play on P.K. Subban, stole the puck and found an empty net. Ballgame.

Just think, this might be only the beginning.

"Everybody in this league can get better," Gerbe said. "I want to continue to grow. I want to be a threat almost every shift offensively, and I want to be a go-to guy. It doesn't just happen. I have to get better each game, focus on improving and never settle for what's already happened."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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