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Ruff's bark has Sabres back on right track

by Bob Matuszak / Dallas Stars

After another uninspiring home loss, this time to the Washington Capitals, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was seething.

The league's longest-tenured bench boss had just watched his club drop a lackluster 4-2 Dec. 30 decision to the upstart Capitals, who skated circles around a Sabres squad that looked disinterested throughout the contest. Always annoyed following a defeat, Ruff was particularly peeved after this one.

"If Jochen Hecht and Derek Roy and those kinds of guys aren't our best players, you don't have any chance of winning," he said. "I want to see action. I don't want to have to give them a two-hour practice tomorrow. I don't want to grind them into the ice. You saw the effort -- that effort by the bulk of the forwards was disappointing."

After lambasting two of his top six forwards, Ruff wasn't quite finished.

"We'll take 'em out of the lineup," he warned. "Some of them will come out, and that's not an idle threat either. If you don't want to compete…if Matt Ellis and Adam Mair want to compete harder, we'll play the guys who want to compete hard. They can make the decision whether they want to compete or not. That's the only fair thing to do."

No disrespect to the journeyman forward Ellis or fourth-line center Mair, but if those two pluggers are the best your team has, things aren't going too smoothly. So rather than continue to skate on Ruff's thin ice, Roy and the rest of the Sabres took the criticism to heart and promptly rattled off a four-game winning streak that was recently snapped this past Saturday in a 3-1 loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.

It was the first time the Sabres had strung together four straight wins since opening the season with a 4-0 mark, and it came at a critical juncture for them. After the defeat to Washington, Buffalo was mired in a 3-4-2 rut while barely hanging on to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Now, with Roy back to his playmaking self, and goalie Ryan Miller steadier than he's been all year, the Sabres seem to have taken a turn for the better instead of making a run for the bus as they enter Thursday's game in Dallas against the Stars at American Airlines Center (7:30 p.m., FSN). 

"It's not my job to look the other way," Ruff said prior to Buffalo's win over Eastern Conference-leading Boston four days following the Washington debacle. "I'm not the type of guy that wants to embarrass people, but I am going to be tough. It's going to be, 'You've got to play this way, or you won't be able to play.' We'll either take off and go, and everybody gets hunkered in, or you'll keep waddling until we have to destroy a couple pieces."

A large part of Buffalo's resurgence has been Miller, who after signing a five-year, $32.5 million contract extension over the summer had a rollercoaster start between the pipes, much like Dallas goalie Marty Turco. Miller began the campaign strong, but then went through a difficult span where he couldn't stop a beach ball.
After posting back-to-back shutouts against the Capitals and New Jersey Devils in early November, Miller promptly produced a stint in which he allowed 22 goals in five starts. Not coincidentally, Miller's pedestrian 10-9-3 record and 2.82 GAA during the months of November and December contributed mightily to Buffalo's rapid slide from an impressive 8-2-2 start.

But Miller now sports a shiny 1.67 goals-against average and 3-0 mark in January, and he'll get the start against the Stars on Thursday after backup Patrick Lalime plays on Wednesday night in Chicago.

This past Friday, Miller stopped 43 New York Rangers shots in regulation and overtime, then all three Rangers shootout attempts in perhaps his best game of the year in Buffalo's 2-1 win. A night later he finished with 45 saves and nearly beat the Red Wings by himself, preserving a 1-1 tie late in the third period with several acrobatic saves before surrendering two late goals that proved to be the difference in a 3-1 loss.

"I have to help out," Miller said. "There are a lot of nights now in the NHL where you just have to grind things out and be patient, so I just try and help as much as I can."

Offensively, the Sabres have been led by former first-round pick Thomas Vanek. A year after signing a whopping seven-year, $50 million contract, the left wing has become a bonafide threat in the NHL after a slow and inconsistent start hampered his 2007-08 season. The Austrian native's 27 goals rank second in the league (tied with the Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin) and are just two fewer than Jeff Carter's league-leading 29 tallies.

Vanek will also be the lone Sabres representative when he appears in his first All-Star game in Montreal later this month.

"He's reaping the benefits right now," said Ruff, who has put Vanek on the penalty-killing unit this year for the first time. "He's improved, and he's going to continue to improve."

Vanek was the first player in the league to reach 20 goals, and his 52 goals in the 2008 calendar year were second only to the 60 registered by Ovechkin.

"I've never been a big part of (promoting) my own success," said Vanek, who participated in the YoungStars game when the All-Star Game was held in Dallas two years ago. "But at the same time, it's an honor to represent the Sabres and my teammates."

Vanek and Roy play together on the Sabres top line, and either of their names is almost always found on the Buffalos scoresheet. Roy has points in all but 14 games this season, with three of those scoreless affairs occurring just prior to Ruff calling him out.

Roy has nine points in the first five games of the month, and leads the team with 40 points in 42 games.

Heading into Wednesday night's action, the Sabres found themselves in seventh place in the East with 47 points, but just one point in front of ninth place Florida and 10th place Pittsburgh. But unlike the wild Western Conference where eight teams are battling for the final two postseason berths, Buffalo is in just a four-team race that includes the Carolina Hurricanes for the seventh and eighth slots.

"Every night's going to be big," Miller said. "We're just trying to keep something positive rolling here."

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