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Kaleta proves his worth as perpetual pest

Mike Richards is their captain and best two-way player, a superstar the Philadelphia Flyers believe can lead them to the Stanley Cup.

Patrick Kaleta, well, you might say he's a player of an entirely different sort for the Buffalo Sabres. He's a punk, a pest, a pain in the you know what. Really, that's a compliment of the highest order.

Richards is known for his cool head, Kaleta as a knucklehead. At least that's the perception throughout every building in the league except one: HSBC Arena. Anybody who has watched the Sabres winger since he first pulled the sweater of his hometown team over his shoulders has witnessed a competitive, calculating player.

It's with that in mind that Kaleta lured Richards into a familiar trap Wednesday night late in the second period of Game Four with the Sabres holding a 1-0 lead. Just a guess, but Kaleta probably didn't approach Richards to see if he were interested in an offseason knitting class.

It was Richards, supposedly the responsible one, who lost his marbles and unloaded with an atomic elbow to Kaleta's noggin that resulted in a five-minute Buffalo power play going into the third period. This time, it was the Sabres who kept their composure while the Flyers lost theirs.

"The playoffs are all about finishing hits and making little plays that make a difference," Kaleta said. "If I can take that guy off the ice, he's one of their main penalty killers. He's their captain. I feel it's a good tradeoff."

OK, you can breathe again.

Ryan Miller was hailed a hero after the Sabres' 1-0 win over the Flyers in Game Four and rightfully so. The franchise goaltender made 32 saves and earned his second shutout in these playoffs, and the Sabres are deadlocked with the series shifting to Philadelphia for Game Five on Friday night.

Miller confirmed every second counts in the postseason when he stood face-to-face, goalie-to-forward, friend-to-friend with old pal Danny Briere with the clock ticking inside nine minutes in regulation.

In most cases, Briere swallows the opportunity whole. Miller kept his composure. Briere cracked first. Miller stopped him with his glove.

And it was Miller who stopped -- guess who? -- Richards with a sliding save in the final five minutes and the Sabres scrambling to maintain their one-goal advantage. He was sprawled in front of the net, certainly out of position but not out the play, before getting his stick in front of a shot destined to tie the game.

In the playoffs, every second counts. Five minutes is a lifetime.

Lost in the euphoria over the Sabres' victory and the frustration over their abysmal power play was that Kaleta brought them five minutes nearer to the conclusion of a one-goal game against an explosive team. Lindy Ruff said he wanted to boo the PP from the bench. But it was five minutes in which they didn't need to account for Richards.

It carried them five minutes closer to tying the series.

"It means I'm doing my job," Kaleta said. "I try to play a clean, hard-nosed game. A lot of people don't like that."

Not until Miller came away from yet another scrum and tossed the puck toward center ice with 30 seconds remaining did you get the feeling the Sabres would survive. They did, barely, and now have trimmed this entertaining series to a best-of-three. Any chance they can play best-of-nine?

The series can't get much closer. Buffalo and Philly are separated by an empty-net goal in Game Three. That's all. All four games have been tight checking, physical, intense. The Sabres could have won, 4-0, given how many times shots rang off crossbars and goal posts. They also could have lost, 3-1.

Buffalo was well aware that its chances of advancing to the second round were all but in the trash can with a loss Wednesday at home. Only 23 of 240 teams in NHL history, less than 10 percent, had won a playoff series after dropping three of the first four games.

Maybe that's why HSBC Arena was strangely quiet 15 minutes before the biggest game of the season and possibly the final home game. It was as if fans were bracing for their last meal while waiting for the governor to grant them a reprieve and somehow give them one more meeting with their children.

Philly knew Buffalo would come flying out of the dressing room and throw the kitchen sink, the dishwasher, the pots and pans and any utensil they could find in the Flyers' direction.

The chore was withstanding whatever pressure the Sabres applied in the first 10 minutes. The chore for the Sabres was surviving the final 10 minutes, tying the series and earning another home game.

"This is hockey at its best -- having fun and living the dream -- playing playoff hockey in the NHL," Gaustad said. "It's great. I hope the fans are having as much fun watching as we are playing."

Ruff juggled his lines after watching his forwards labor around the net in two consecutive losses, giving his team a new look and effectively scrapping whatever the Flyers had planned against them.

Jason Pominville had not scored while playing on the top line with Tim Connolly and Thomas Vanek in the first three games. Tyler Ennis, who had been without a point going into Game Four, found Rob Niedermayer just outside the crease. Niedermayer relayed a pass to Pominville, who was hiding back door with the net open.

The Sabres had led for just 14 minutes, 48 seconds going into the game, so the early score was precisely what they needed. Heck, with any luck, the Sabres could have had a three-goal lead going into the first intermission. Tyler Myers cranked a wrist shot off the crossbar later in the period, and Brad Boyes hit the post with four minutes remaining.

They had the start they wanted, but they were anything but comfortable against a quick-striking team they knew all too well. And they're not comfortable now.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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