Stealthy Sabres

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 11:58 AM ET

They don't have anyone in the top 60 in NHL scoring. They didn't add any big name free agents in the off-season. Their best forward, Daniel Briere, missed over 30 games to injury. Their starting goalie, Ryan Miller, missed two months. They're just two years removed from bankruptcy and court proceedings against their former owner.

And, in perhaps the unkindest cut of all, they play in Buffalo.

But there are the Sabres, with the third best record in the Eastern Conference and fourth best overall. Quietly, well under the radar, they are one of the most impressive stories of the season.

"I imagine teams around the league are saying, 'How the hell are they doing it?' '' said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, a lead-pipe cinch for the Jack Adams trophy if there ever was one.

"It's our depth. Our lines are almost universal, from one down to four. We expect all of them to score, all of them to be in on the defence.''

Ruff also has them playing the best special teams in the NHL (power play and penalty killing are both second overall). And when their starting goalie went down with a broken thumb, they had enough depth in goal to post the eighth-best GAA in the NHL.

Not bad for a team that was picked to finish last, or very near it, this season in the majority of pre-season publications and polls.

"I've heard that,'' chuckled Ruff, who's leading scorer, Ales Kotalik, has 46 points. "The reason we got picked so far down is because we didn't make the big noise like a lot of teams did when it came to signing players. We got Teppo (Numminen) in free agency who's been very good for us. We got (Toni) Lydman in a trade. We liked where we were at the end of '03-04 and I think that was taken for granted.''

It takes a lot of guts - and a lot of hockey smarts - to stand pat on a team that missed the playoffs last season, but Sabres management saw enough in their players, young and old, to give them another chance.

"I think that was the big key,'' said Chris Drury. "Individually, and collectively, management showed us, by not going out and bringing in 10 new guys, that they believed in us. It's great to see and it's great to be a part of.''

"We've had some tough years with bankruptcy and not making the playoffs,'' added Biron. "I think this is the year this organization was really looking to make it or break it. We've had some young guys stepping up, we've had everybody contributing. Everybody says we're a surprise, and that's fine - we don't listen too much.''

After all the Sabres have been through - three straight years out of the playoffs, dismal attendance, an ownership scandal and an uncertain future in Buffalo - they deserve it.

"They've been to rock bottom and back,'' said Drury, who joined the team last season. "It's pretty amazing how quickly the organization has bounced back.''

"All that stuff is in the past,'' said defenceman Brian Campbell. "Our owner (Tom Golisano) has been unbelievable to us. He acts like a friend to us. He's in the room after games, he's just interested in everything and how we're doing. It makes you want to play hard for him.

"The building is starting to fill up, the fans are starting to get energized. It's a lot easier to play in front of 18,000 than 13,000.''

And it's pretty easy playing for Ruff, too, as long as you bust your hump every single shift - in practice and in the games.

"His biggest thing is, 'Show up to work,' " said Drury. "If you come in and put your work boots on he won't have a problem with you.''

Campbell recalls a November practice where Ruff set the tone for the season.

"We'd lost a few in a row and practice was pretty intense - a lot more intense than normal. He was getting on (us) because we were getting a little lazy. He asked for 12 points out of the next 16. We gave him 15 and just kept going from there.''

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T'S TOP FIVE

TOP 5 OTHER THINGS - ASIDE FROM THE LEAFS MAKING THE PLAYOFFS - THAT TORONTONIANS HOLD OUT HOPE FOR:

5 - NASA makes it official: They can finally get those "Centre of the Universe" signs printed up.

4 - Eric Lindros is a quick healer.

3 - The Oilers will trade Jason Smith back to the Leafs for the two draft picks in the original deal.*

2 - That the rest of Canada will be dumb enough to vote for the Liberals again.

1 - Health Canada determines that smog is good for you.

* Exactly where are you now, Jonathan Zion and Kris Vernarsky?

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T'S TEAM OF THE WEEK

C - JOE THORNTON (SHARKS): 6 goals and 9 assists in 7 games. Ask the Oilers.

LW - MARK RECCHI (HURRICANES): 4 goals, 4 assists in 4 games and gets traded from 30th-place team to first overall.

RW - SHANE DOAN (COYOTES): 8 points in his last 3 games, but it's too late for Phoenix.

LD - LUBOMIR VIZNOVSKY (KINGS): 9 points and plus-5 in 5 games helps keep L.A. ahead of the Oil.

RD - SERGEI ZUBOV (STARS): 9 points in the last 5 games, and that doesn't include his shootout prowess.

G - CURTIS SANFORD (BLUES): Thanks in part to him, St. Louis is a team nobody wants to play right now.

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T'S QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"I have the youngest-looking neck in the league.''

-- Rem Murray on the monthly Botox injections that eased the nerve disorder in his neck.


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