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Buffalo Rising?
Look closely: Sabres are rebuilding their game on the fly

BUFFALO (LGS) — You don't know it yet, but Happy Days are here again.

And this time, they just might be for real.

Happy Days? Last place in the Northeast Division, out of a playoff spot and already 13 points back of Ottawa?

Yeah! And I love it!

I'm rolling in this early-season mess like a cat rolls in the dirt. I had a hockey itch, and these troubled times were just the scratch I needed.

The Sabres needed it, too.

To suffer and tear their game down and rebuild it — the right way.

OK, the foundation still needs some work and Thomas Vanek doesn't care for the skylight, but would you really rather live in that million-dollar palace they built last year, the place that termites eventually nibbled to the ground?

One year ago, the Sabres were off to an Ottawa-like start, atop every Power Poll, the subject of fawning national broadcast and print stories, the darlings of Buffalo.

Times were good, but I knew deep down it was Fool's Blue and Gold. Take your miner's pick to the surface of 20 wins in the first 25 games, the Sabres one of only five teams in NHL history to do so, and you could see special teams that were struggling, three and four pucks in the Buffalo net with alarming frequency, dramatic comebacks and shootout wins that were born of slow starts and uneven spurts.

And a soft team, Pillsbury Doughboys on skates.

When Alex Ovechkin boarded Daniel Briere in Game 26 and the response was almost non-existent and the Caps won 7-4, the league started to pay attention. The rest is history, as far as I'm concerned.

While it appears to be the same powder-puff team on paper this season, things are subtly changing where it counts: on ice.

Toni Lydman made a play that might be remembered as a turning point when he fell in front of a shot in Boston to start the month, earning a huge gash on his face, a badge of honor. Paul Gaustad wore a shiner for awhile and had been among the best forwards on the team before officially joining Lydman's Big Sack Club in last night's win over the Bruins by taking on Zdeno Chara, the bogeyman, several times. Adam Mair was also picking up his physical game when he hurt his ankle.

More sandpaper.

It isn't the only positive trend in this team's game.

• After a not-so-great start to the fall, Ryan Miller is putting himself back together again.

• Goals against are dropping, 16 in the last six games and just three in the last two, including one into an empty net. Opponents' shots on goal and chances have also been brought to a much more manageable level in recent games.

• The power play has cashed exactly 25% of its chances since that five-game road trip began in Montreal and sits a respectable seventh place in the league after finishing 17th last year. And they've done it without allowing a single shorthanded goal, something that plagued them a year ago, a shortie dooming them in the playoffs against Ottawa almost from the start.

• The penalty killers are improving. They've killed off 28 of the last 31 opponent power plays and sit in 11th in the league, a far cry from 20th in 06-07.

• Discipline is returning. The Sabres have been shorthanded only five times in the last three games after filling the penalty box in many of their games before that.

• Kids are filling in and stepping up to give this team a lift. From Andrej Sekera, whose play is improving every night, to Mike Weber, who plays a clean, boring game, to Clarke MacArthur, who last night scored what very well might be looked back on as one of the biggest goals of the year.

Goals? They're coming tougher — although the Sabres sit in seventh place in offense — and that's fine too. Drew Stafford scored a beauty, his blooper against Florida a game-winner. And Vanek is earning his keep by standing in front of the net, getting assists that never show up on the scoresheet, like the screen he set against the Bruins last night on Ales Kotalik's game-tying goal.

Ugly? Sure, but ugly is good for this team of shield-wearing, necklaced metrosexuals.

That image will change. Lindy Ruff will make sure of it, and Darcy Regier might even lend a helping hand.

Just as certainly, he will get this team off to better starts, have them playing with the lead in no time. He'll break them of bad habits in the offensive zone, while still keeping an attacking personality intact. The system tweaks will take hold. The defensive zone will be cleaned up.

And you can write this down: The Sabres will have a three-game winning streak heading into Ottawa on November 15, next Thursday.

Getting a huge win, or at least playing the future Presidents' Trophy-winners tough, not backing down, will go a long way toward making the 07-08 Sabres a repeat of the 06-07 Senators.

Those Senators had lost a lot from their lineup and arrived in Buffalo on, yes, November 15 sitting at 6-10-1, their fans howling for change, ready to kick some beaver tails out of town.

Ottawa beat Buffalo 4-2 that night and went on a tear that carried them to the Stanley Cup finals.

Grit and bite, two words never associated with the Senators unless they were having breakfast before a game in Atlanta, were suddenly on Ottawa's menu. They had tasted blood, and so soon would Chris Drury.

Just as Lydman surely did.

The defenseman's cut was so deep, he's had to wear a cage the last couple of games to protect it. When it starts to heal, a scab will form, and it will fall off, leaving a scar.

The way my warped hockey mind sees it, the first 10 or 15 games will be looked back upon as one nasty shot to the chops of the Buffalo Sabres. When the cage comes off, this team will be better for it. Tougher. And toughened. Battle-ready and, this time, ready for the playoffs.

You can bolt from the theater after watching the first 15 minutes of this chick flick if you wish. Fine. But things are going to start blowing up soon. So keep your ticket stub. You'll need it to gain readmission.

I may be positively stone-cold nuts, the next member of The Lydman Club, but I'm prepared to say the line back in starts forming right here, right now.

By Mark Zampogna, LGS Featured Columnist
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