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Are These Guys Still "Scary Good?"

That October winning streak seems so long ago. The occasional loss, here or there, gave Sabres fans no real concerns at first. After all, no team can win every game, right?

But 2007 has not been kind to the Buffalo Sabres. The team posted a very ordinary 6-7-1 record for January, including devastating back-to-back losses to bottom feeders Columbus and New York. More alarmingly, the team has not been able to embrace a lead and finish, squandering third-period leads and losing in regulation and walking away with no points.

Well, let’s all take a deep breath and reflect on where we are. Entering last month’s All Star break, the team was tops in the conference and in second place overall, trailing league leader Nashville by just one point. The team has maintained that standing going into mid February.

The Sabres are on pace to earn 115 points, which would be a franchise record. They have led the division all season long and haven’t looked back, and could grab the league’s top point total and also snare the President’s Trophy. Two championship banners could be set before the puck drops for the first playoff game.

Not too shabby.

Coach Lindy Ruff has openly lamented that the game is moving away from the fast-tempo, free-wheeling and high-scoring action that the fans have embraced and on which the Sabres have thrived. “The coach is right,” forward Derek Roy says. “Teams have gotten more physical up front and that has disrupted our style of play. So what we have to is get more physical as well and take it right back to them.”

Earlier this month defenseman Toni Lydman, not exactly known for his fisticuffs, got into a major brawl with Boston’s Brad Boyes at TD Banknorth Garden, a fight which earned him a black eye, a swollen lip and, umm, not exactly a “W.” “Boyes was trying to put a spark into his team,” Lydman recalls, “and who did he look for but the first European on the ice to go after. Fighting isn’t really my thing but I sure as heck wasn’t going to back down.”

Roy says, “When guys like Toni take on that more physical presence, it send a positive message to all the guys on the bench.”

Both Roy and Lydman agree that the team has to do a better job to protect leads and finish. Says Roy, “We really have been victimized by some weird things and some flukie things in these games late. That’s bound to happen during the course of a long season.”

Lydman says that not much has changed in the team’s philosophy. “Nobody here is getting winded or tired. We have to step it up and I think we’re doing that.”

Lindy Ruff has not altered the team’s approach to third periods. Says Ruff, “We aren’t thinking about how to protect our lead. We’re thinking about how to add to that lead and put the game away. Everyone knows that in this league goals can come in a hurry.”

This past week a freak skate slash to the ankle of Paul Gaustad brought his season to end. For the Sabres the 6’ 5”, 220-pound checking forward is an all too rare physical presence, and his contributions are far more significant to the team than his nine goals would indicate. Goalie Ryan Miller summed up the feelings of many after the Calgary game, saying, “I’m Paul’s biggest fan, you really feel for a guy like that…a guy who comes to the rink every day, takes care of himself, and to see something like that happen to him almost seems unfair.” It will be interesting to see if and how Gaustad’s injury affects any trade deadline dealings.

If history provides any lessons, then one need only to look back at 1999 and 2006. During both those seasons the Sabres went through nerve-wracking, gut-wrenching losing streaks and devastating injuries. Both times fans questioned the team’s heart, talent and tenacity.

And both seasons, fans here enjoyed hockey in June.

TARO SEZ…

■ Wowie Housley! Phil Housley spent 21 years in the NHL, his first eight here in Buffalo, and last week was inducted into the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame. With 338 goals and 1,232 points as well as success in international competition, his eventual enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame seems assured. Surely he will enter as a Buffalo Sabre!

■ Congrats to Colorado defenseman Karlis Skrastins on setting a new record for consecutive games played at his position by skating in his 487th game in a row. The record was previously held by the late Tim Horton.

■ Buffalo shares the NHL lead in shootout victories with Minnesota (9).

■ Really useless stat: The Buffalo/Calgary clash featured the only two NHL clubs not to have been shut out this season.

■ Bfloblog occasionally does a blast from the past profiling some obscure ex-Sabre. Anyone remember Rod Zaine or Joe Reekie? Bookmark http://bfloblog.com—it is an excellent Sabres resource!

■ Who knew there were so many local Flames fans? Oh, wait. Considering that it is gospel for fans across the border to cheer for any Canadian-based team, who wouldn’t be surprised if half of those exact same fans were wearing Canucks garb a while back, and will be wearing Oilers jerseys come February 15?