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Sabres & Rangers—The Battle Continues

New York—That 8-0-2 streak was almost too good to be true, wasn’t it?

Over the past three weeks, the Buffalo Sabres had climbed out of 14th place in the conference to a respectable seventh seed. Just like that, players and fans were no longer concentrating on who among the pack might snag an eighth seed. Now we were looking at Montreal, at New Jersey, and, dare we say it, at Ottawa’s first place neighborhood, just 10 points away.

Well, all those happy thoughts came crashing down this past weekend in the Big Apple, as the Sabres lost an ugly one to the New York Rangers, 5-1. The Rangers scored at the 10-second mark as Sean Avery put a rebound by Ryan Miller. The carnage continued: By the 12:25 mark of the first period it was 4-0, and Ryan Miller was chased from the net in favor of backup netminder Jocelyn Thibault.

Do the Rangers have the Sabres’ number this year? Are the Sabres jinxed against the Blueshirts? And what can we expect as the four-game season series now shifts to HSBC Arena in Buffalo, starting this Saturday, and again on Monday, March 10, in a nationally televised game on Versus?

Defenseman Jaroslav Spacek had an uncharacteristically bad game against New York. Along with defenseman Brian Campbell, he got a great view of the Rangers’ first period goals—they both were on the ice for all of them. “We fell asleep in the first period and then they just kept on coming,” said Spacek. “They had five days off and we figured it would take some time to get their legs up from under them, but they battled right from the get-go.”

Campbell said that playing catch-up from so large a deficit early on can be a real challenge. “You fall behind like that and it really takes the wind out of your team,” said Campbell. “They did what they had to do and they played well.” When asked if he remembered ever being a minus-four in his career, on the first four goals no less, Campbell replied, “Yep,” then meekly added “Probably.”

With the East standings so tightly wound so late in the season, everyone realizes the magnitude of each game, each point won and each point surrendered. Players and coaches from both sides admitted last weekend that the remaining two Sabres/Rangers contests will loom large when the final playoff seedings are determined. And no one is expecting a repeat of last Saturday’s embarrassment.

Rangers head coach Tom Renney was adamant in saying, “I can tell you this. We can certainly expect a different Sabres team in Buffalo. They’re a good hockey team. We have enough respect for them to know that we’ll have to play A-plus hockey to beat them in their building. No question about it.”

When Rangers center Brandon Dubinsky was asked about the fast start against such a hot club, he replied, “We prepared for it, and as a team we really knew what was at stake and what we needed to do to win and to make an impression and have that great start. We just have to do it consistently night in and night out.”

Spacek added, “Of course we’ll play better. And we will have the home fans behind us, so that helps. But right now we have three or four more games to play before we see the Rangers again…we have to focus on those first.”

The other big drama surrounding this Saturday’s game will be the first return of former Sabres forward Chris Drury, who departed Buffalo as a free agent last July to sign a five-year, $35.25 million deal with the New York Rangers. So far this season, Drury is the third leading scorer on the Rangers, behind Scott Gomez and Jaromir Jagr, but with 43 points to his credit, expect Drury to fall well short of his scoring output with Buffalo last season, when he tallied a career-high 37 goals and 32 assists for 69 points.

Drury will certainly hear the cheers, and the jeers, from the Sabres fans, but the players won’t be paying any particular attention. “All that is for the fans to enjoy and for you guys to write about,” said Spacek. “To us he is just another player, and someone we have to shut down.”

Campbell pretty much summed things up: “This play was unacceptable. We have to play smarter against them…starting next weekend.”

TARO SEZ…

■ Blame us! The Sabres are 0-3-1(SO) in the four road games that we’ve covered and were outscored 19-5 as well. Let’s not add that Miller was pulled in two of those games either. Yikes!

■ Useless stat of the week: Saturday’s game at Madison Square Garden saw the Sabres 10-game points streak come to an end. The last time they were in the Garden was for the final game of their 10-game losing streak.

■ Rangers’ goalie Henrik Lundqvist has recently been signed to a $41.25-million extension over six years. Hmm…he and Ryan Miller have had strikingly similar career numbers thus far. Just sayin’.