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Sabres coach Lindy Ruff marvels at own longevity in wake of latest NHL firing

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BUFFALO, N.Y. - Lindy Ruff figures there's no way to put together this kind of streak without a little good fortune.

As the longest-tenured man in a volatile profession, the Buffalo Sabres coach doesn't get surprised when he hears that another member of the fraternity has lost his job. It's something he's seen happen time and again.

There have been 137 coaching changes in the NHL since Ruff was hired by the Sabres in July 1997, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. While that number alone is staggering, consider the anecdotal evidence - Craig Hartsburg has now lost three NHL head coaching jobs over that period.

All the while, Ruff keeps plugging away with the Sabres.

"Part of it is luck," he said Wednesday morning. "We've gone through new ownership and sometimes with new ownership there's new coaches and new management. Sometimes I feel that you're lucky when you go through that process and they want to keep you, they like what they see.

"I think we've had good success, we've been able to get through every year. We've had good success in the playoffs. But you have to win, there's no secret."

It also takes a special commitment from the organization.

Every professional sports franchise is under constant pressure to win, but it's almost impossible to win every year. When the Sabres missed the playoffs last season, it was the fourth time they'd done so under Ruff in 10 seasons.

However, the coach has earned some leeway from GM Darcy Regier because of a deep mutual respect that exists between the two men. They've worked had to establish continuity in Buffalo.

"The reality is there's 14 teams that are outside the (playoff) picture every year," said Ruff. "It's not a surprise. The teams that keep rolling coaches over I think have a tougher time because consistency with management and the coach and the direction you're going keeps getting changed.

"For us, we've tried to remain consistent. We've tried to remain patient with our players. I think it's really been the strength of our organization and Darcy's really at the forefront of all that."

The patience has already been tested this season.

Buffalo went through a stretch in November where it won just three of 13 games and fell outside the top eight in the Eastern Conference. A climb back up the standings was helped by a 9-4 record in January - the most wins the Sabres have had in any month in more than two years.

Some of the veterans in the team's dressing room are glad to have endured a period where they struggled.

"I'd like a team that comes through that better than a team that's just going to skate through the season," said goalie Ryan Miller. "We had a tough time (in 2006-07) when we won the Presidents Trophy - going through adversity when it really mattered the most."

In many ways, this is a different kind of Sabres team than the ones that appeared in back-to-back Eastern Conference finals coming out of the lockout.

Those teams relied heavily on their offensive skill and a wide-open brand of hockey. Ruff has steadily had to scale that back over time and convince his players to focus more on their defensive responsibilities.

"Most teams now have four or five guys back," he explained. "Lining up, they've got a five-man group in the neutral zone. If you don't want to get the puck in deep and go to work you don't get much done."

The team seems to have bought in.

Ruff has outlasted all of the players that suited up for the Sabres in 1997-98 - his first season as the team's coach. Since then, he's taken the team to the Stanley Cup final and won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.

And it shouldn't be the least bit surprising if he's considered for a spot on the Canadian coaching staff at the 2010 Olympics.

For now, Ruff's focus remains on this season and the key stretch of games his team is embarking on. After hosting Toronto on Wednesday night, the Sabres welcome Montreal on Friday and play a home-and-home series with Ottawa.

The result of those inter-divisional games could be key come playoff time. There's no need to tell the coach that - he's been tracking the standings carefully.

"I started at game two and I've been keeping an eye ever since," said Ruff. "That is the truth. If you look at the standings, even in both conferences, it's incredible (how close it is)."

Ultimately, there isn't much difference between success and failure.

Even though Ruff has experienced more of the former than the latter during his coaching career, he freely admits that there have been times when he wondered if his run in Buffalo was close to ending.

"Oh God yeah," he said. "When you lose 10 (games) or don't win for 10 (you start to wonder), but then we bounced back and didn't lose for 10. That's part of it - I think you have to go through some tough times, every team has some tough times.

"You've got to fear losing. I think that's my greatest fear always."

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