Sabres chase is over

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

BUFFALO -- The record will have to wait for another year.

To serious hockey fans, it would have been a spurious record, anyway.

The National Hockey League has decided that the Buffalo Sabres' 10-game undefeated string to start the season matches the Maple Leafs' record of 1993.

But the Leafs did it in an era when there were no shootouts. The Sabres won three of this season's games that way.

At the time the Leafs set the record, those games would have ended as ties.

But last night, in a result that has to be seen as poetic justice, the Atlanta Thrashers put the matter to bed for another season, defeating the Sabres 5-4 -- in a shootout when Slava Kozlov scored the only goal.

With all the attention having been on Buffalo's quest for the "record," the average fan could have been excused for not noticing that the Thrashers aren't exactly a house league team from the local nunnery.

They are second in the Eastern Conference and came into the game with only one more loss than the Sabres.

They had to withstand an early Buffalo surge when the Sabres, fuelled by their boisterous crowd, stormed to the attack in the early going.

But after a few minutes, the Thrashers settled down and started to show why they're off to such a good start.

The guy who got them rolling was Bobby Holik who, through no fault of his own, is a much-maligned player among hockey fans, never having been able to live down that huge contract he got from the New York Rangers. But when you watch Holik, it's clear that he is a quality player who knows the game and plays it well at both ends of the ice.

When the Thrashers trapped the Sabres' big line and went to the attack, Holik scooped up a rebound at the edge of the crease. Many players would just fire the puck as quickly as possible in that situation. But Holik, oozing poise, slid to his right as Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller went down, then calmly fired the puck into the net.

Not long after, while penalty killing, Holik showed similar poise. He had an easy clear, but instead he shielded the puck with his body, took the time to skate another 30 feet and allow his teammates to head to the bench, and then cleared it.

Briere made up for his earlier transgression by tying the score, but less than a minute later, Holik picked off an errant pass at the blue line and broke up ice. He carried the puck over the blue line and then, as the defenders closed in, slid a perfect pass over to Scott Mellanby who fired it home.

Goals like that tend to have a demoralizing effect. After all the hard work to tie the score, you quickly find yourself right back in a hole.

But the Thrashers liked the concept so much they did it again.

For much of the second period, they held the Sabres at check by the simple expedient of staying out of the penalty box. The Sabres are not only dangerous with the man advantage, they seem to get a lift that lasts long after the penalty expires.

But finally, when Vitaly Vishnevski was sent off in the 14th minute, the Sabres -- and the building -- came to life.

Sure enough, the Sabres made the most of the opportunity, getting back even when Thomas Vanek slammed home a rebound from the side of the net.

But the euphoria didn't last even two minutes. Andy Sutton unleashed a shot from the point that missed the net and came out the other side. When Miller didn't get across fast enough, Niko Kapanen slammed the puck home.

Then, to make the evening complete, the Thrashers did it again in the third period. This time, Jason Pominville evened the score, but 75 seconds later, Ilya Kovalchuk restored the Atlanta lead.

But with less than two minutes remaining, Atlanta goalie Kari Lehtonen kicked out a rebound that went right to Jochen Hecht who shot it back between Lehtonen's legs.


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