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Simple philosophy led to Sabres' resurgence

They're good friends, Lindy Ruff and Jacques Lemaire, perhaps because they see the game much the same way. It was something they discovered while serving as assistant coaches under Mike Babcock for Hockey Canada in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Ruff returned from a summer evaluation camp a rejuvenated coach going into the 2009-10 season. His best decision of the year was picking Lemaire's brain for two weeks, which gave him new ideas and helped him refine his defensive system. The Sabres rolled a good start into a 100-point season and their sixth division title.

Folks, it was no accident.

Sound defense and good goaltending can take a team a long way, which Lemaire has proven for years. Blame him for the neutral-zone trap if you must, but he didn't invent the boring style so much as master it. The New Jersey Devils won their division last season under him. Ruff reveres few others in hockey the way he does Lemaire.

"I have the utmost respect for the way he coaches his team, the way he treats his players and how hard he works to teach just the little things in the game," Ruff said. "All those little things -- not going into detail -- is what made us a better team."

Often, it's the little things that create the mess, and the little things that clean it up.

The Sabres took another step in their march toward the playoffs with a 2-0 victory over the Devils, and that was no small thing. Buffalo has been one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference since December, and they kept up the good work Saturday against a New Jersey team that finally emptied the tank.

Buffalo's win was hardly keeper for the postseason DVD. The Sabres didn't score any fancy goals with tick-tack-toe passing. Ryan Miller was solid in making 30 saves, but he wasn't required to stand on his head. The Sabres were disciplined defensively and controlled the game from nearly start to finish.

In that sense, it was a masterpiece.

The Sabres' smart, disciplined, methodical play has allowed them to gain control down the stretch. Their passes are shorter and quicker than they were early in the season. Sometimes, when you watch them play, it's difficult to fathom that they were tied for seventh in the NHL in goals scored going into Saturday's game.

"Lindy knows exactly what he's got in his hand and how to deal with it," Lemaire said. "He has a lot of experience and has proven in the past that what he does works. He's a good coach. That's it, pure and simple."

Key word: simple.

The Sabres had their way Saturday after scoring two goals in the first period. Nathan Gerbe grabbed a juicy rebound in the right circle and roofed a wrister early in the game. Later, Thomas Vanek pounced on Jason Pominville's rebound after Tim Connolly won a faceoff.

Two simple plays. Two easy goals.

Pretty simple, wouldn't you say?

It's what both coaches have been preaching all along while working to the strengths of their personnel while trying to pull their teams from The Deep. The Sabres and Devils had too many players trying to make pretty plays rather than perfecting the smart ones early in the season, which is how they landed in so much trouble in the first place.

The Sabres were dead last in the NHL after their miserable start and appeared to be dead meat after losing Dec. 27 for the fourth time in five games. Four days earlier, Lemaire was lured out of retirement to take over a hopeless Devils team that became a 9-22-2 laughingstock under rookie coach John MacLean.

"At one point, we were as low as we could go," Ruff said. "I don't know if anyone one was lower than us. We might have been right there with them at 3-9-2. It's an interesting conversation when we talk about each other's teams."

Look at them now.

Buffalo was in eighth place, New Jersey in 12th going into their game Saturday night, but their rise to mediocrity in the standings says little about their work. Nobody should be shocked if Lemaire becomes the first coach to miss the playoffs and win the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL Coach of the Year.

The Devils started late and appear to be ending early before running out of energy, but they had a 22-3-2 stretch in which they were the best team in the league. The Sabres are 11-3-3 over their last 17 games. And it looks like Ruff and Lemaire are seeing the game much the same way.

"It's getting the guys to play together, getting the guys to believe in themselves, getting the guys to play as a team," Lemaire said. "They turned it around and now they're back playing like that team should play. When you do that, you have to respect the guy and give him credit."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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