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Fourth line rocks in disappointing homestand

Patrick Kaleta firing on all cylinders

The Buffalo Sabres came home last week after lighting up the league, and fans were anticipating an October to remember. And why not? The team was 6-0-2 after eight games. They were the last team left standing with no regulation losses. Their defense had raised the bar, not allowing any power play goals. Collecting three out of four points on the road against two tough teams, Minnesota and Colorado, felt especially satisfying.

Now the Sabres were coming home to the friendly confines of HSBC Arena for three home dates, including tantalizing opponents in the likes of bottom feeders Ottawa and Tampa Bay.

Then the wheels came off.

The Sabres looked like a tattered and dispirited bunch in back-to-back 5-2 losses last week, before rebounding with one of their best efforts of the season, a 5-0 win over the Ovechkin-less Washington Capitals, giving Ryan Miller his first shutout of the season and the eighth of his career, then making it back-to-back shutouts Monday at New Jersey.

So what turned the Sabres fortunes around? When nothing else worked, the coach started yelling. “Yeah, yelling,” said Thomas Vanek.

“It’s a shame that it had to go this far to get us this wakeup call, but him yelling like he did seemed to work,” said Jason Pominville.

“Lots of yelling,” added Miller.

One of the bright lights during the team’s sudden sag in fortunes was the energetic play of Patrick Kaleta. The young forward has been measuring and delivering hits, drawing penalties at opportune times, and is quickly gaining a reputation for being a pest.

None of this is any surprise to head coach Lindy Ruff. “You know he was in the shot lane, he had a couple of blocks for us,” said Ruff, following the Capitals game this past Saturday. “If I need somebody to go into the shot lane, he’s going to get hit, he’ll go down on one knee, he’ll turn sideways, and shots just don’t get through. That is a valuable tool to have.”

Kaleta now has a goal and an assist in the last two games. His first point was a nifty one. He and Winger Daniel Paille went in two-on-one in the third period, passing the puck back and forth, with Kaleta making the penultimate swing move over to Paille, who buried the puck past a dazed Jose Theodore. That made the score 5-0 late, but not unnoticed by the fans in attendance was the solid play all night by this line, which also included returning center Paul Gaustad.

“Pat just adds so much energy and emotion every time he touches the ice,” Gaustad said. “The rest of us feed on that and from there it’s go, go, go.”

With Thomas Vanek maintaining the scoring touch and Tim Connolly finally back in uniform, having the fourth line at the top of their game helps take the pressure off the scorers. Watch for these guys in the games ahead—when they’re on it lifts the entire team.

TARO SEZ (World Juniors Update)…

Okay, that’s old news by now, as the Sabres held a star-studded news conference to announce that the greatest junior international tournament in hockey will be coming to Buffalo from December 26, 2010 to January 5, 2011, 31 games in all.

But will Buffalo be ready?

Watching the reshaping of the Inner Harbor and the Cobblestone District move along at a glacial pace, we asked Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn, who is also vice chair of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, if there is a sense of urgency to get leases and agreements in place and begin meaningful construction on the sites near the arena, including a long-awaited Bass Pro. Quinn replied, “The Aud and Donovan will be gone by spring, and we hope to begin construction of Bass Pro by later in 2009, with a target opening in time for the Christmas shopping season of 2010. This will tie right in to this event and this time frame.”

What was disappointing, however, was news this week from Buffalo Place that returning car traffic to sections of Main Street has been delayed yet again, with 2010 now being kicked around. The reconfiguring of lower Main Street seems to be a no-brainer—they’re starting with a blank slate. The eyesore Aud Metrorail station could and should be blown up now, and a showcase new Canal Harbor station, with weather-protected access right into the arena, should be the utmost priority, along with reconfigured roads to support all this. Yet nobody is talking about this component of the Inner Harbor.

Our prediction: Come 2010, when Buffalo welcomes the world for the NCAA subregionals, the Bassmasters, the Empire State Games, and the World Juniors, four marquee events, visitors downtown will be treated to shovel-ready sites, windswept parking lots, shabby construction fencing, “coming soon” billboards with sexy-looking renderings, and a lot of finger-pointing after yet more and more delays.

If we’re wrong, we’ll be more than happy to eat this column. Memo to ECHDC chair Jordan Levy, Quinn, and their PR chief Matt Davison: Pass the ketchup.

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