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Sabres ready for another challenge

Say what you will about Lindy Ruff, this is when he's generally at his best. Ruff becomes more animated at playoff time, more engaged with his sport and the people who follow it. You can sense that the Sabres' coach thrives on the familiar rhythms and rituals of a Stanley Cup playoff season.

Ruff has a fan's love for this time of year. And like any Sabres fan, he's jacked up for Game Three tonight against the Flyers at HSBC Arena. It's the first home playoff game of the Terry Pegula era. He can't wait for the puck to drop, either.

"I think the emotion in the building will be incredible," Ruff said Sunday following an optional practice. "The atmosphere has always been incredible. It's our fans. It's our energy. I thought we answered the bell [Saturday] and maybe went a little bit too far. But it's going to be fun to be in our building."

There's always an agenda with the man, too. In the aftermath of Saturday's 5-4 loss, it was clear that Ruff felt his team had gotten a little caught up in the emotion of a playoff series. But at the same time, he wanted to make sure the Sabres didn't lose the competitive edge that carried them down the stretch and into the playoffs.

They didn't get to this point by backing down from a challenge. The Sabres were written off, left for dead. But they had the best record in the Eastern Conference after New Year's Day, the best record in the NHL since Pegula took over two months ago.

Over the last half of the season, the Sabres became an assertive, irrepressible hockey team, one that pressed the issue and responded to difficult circumstances. And as Pegula set about changing the culture in the arena, they rediscovered their lost home-ice edge and won their last five home games of the regular season.

They still have not lost two consecutive games since Pegula took over, a streak that goes back to the Atlanta game here on Feb. 23. So they come home, tied a game apiece with the hated Flyers, with the streak on the line in Pegula's first home playoff game.

"Playoffs is a time of year when you'd like to win all four games in one night," Ruff said. "But the schedule isn't set up that way. It just isn't. It's dealing with adversity. It's dealing with the emotions of a loss. It's being able to put the win away just as fast as you put away a loss."

Ruff didn't want to attach too much significance to the notion of losing two in a row. Neither did his players. Losing two in a row is no disaster in the playoffs. The Blackhawks lost two in a row in the finals last year and won the Cup. The Penguins lost two straight to Detroit in the '09 finals and won it all. Heck, these same Flyers went down, 0-3, to the Bruins last year and came back to win.

Still, it would be good for the Sabres' confidence to follow a loss with a victory for the 10th straight time, extending their magic into the playoffs and letting the world know their resiliency wasn't a regular-season phenomenon.

Oh, and the Flyers haven't won two consecutive games since March 10, which happens to be the same date when star defenseman Chris Pronger went out with a broken hand. A win would give the Flyers an immeasurable lift. So as third games go, this one could be especially pivotal.

"We had a mentality where we had to make the push to make the playoffs," said defenseman Mike Weber. "There was a mentality that if we lost two in a row, our dream would have slipped away. No one wants to lose. We want to be successful, and we've focused on making sure we bounce back really strong from a loss."

Playoffs are a peculiar animal. Last year, the Sabres didn't lose a regular-season game when they led going into the third period. They did it twice in six games against the Bruins in the playoffs. If they lose a second straight game tonight, in their first home playoff game, it might put a little dent in the Pegula mystique.

The Sabres got their split in Philadelphia, confirming the belief that Ruff's teams perform best in the playoffs when they begin on the road. But home is still the best place to be, in front of your own roaring, supportive fans. You don't work for the split so you can hand the advantage right back.

"That's probably your one advantage, when you go on the road to start a series," said Mike Grier. "If you win one, you can come home and feel good about yourself. We've been pretty good at home lately. The crowds have been great. So hopefully, we can feed off that. We're going to need them.

"[Philadelphia] was a tough environment for us to be in," Grier said, "especially a lot of young guys who haven't experienced something like that before. So hopefully our crowd can match them and give us a little boost, especially when things aren't going well out there. They can pick us up and kind of push us in the right direction."

The Flyers were here just 10 days ago, on one of the most memorable evenings in Sabres history. That win was to get into the playoffs. Tonight is about winning in the playoffs. It will be the first home playoff game in a profoundly emotional year, the first under Pegula, an owner who lifted a franchise with his arrival.

"You know what? I'm not surprised," Ruff said. "I think the passion [Pegula] put into his first speech summed it all up. It's no more than that. About winning, believing. Winning is a belief, it's not just a goal. We were going good before that date and he gave us an extra boost to go even better. He's a man with tremendous passion for this team and for Buffalo in general. What more could you ask for?"

The more giddy fans might ask that the Sabres never lose back-to-back games again. A skeptic would suggest they're overdue. But two months ago, who thought there would be hockey in Buffalo in mid-April? Might as well sit back and enjoy it.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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