- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2000

The Buffalo team that visited MCI Center yesterday was a wounded and weary bunch. The afternoon before, the Sabres had let two precious points slip through their mitts by losing to the lowly Islanders in New York. They also were finishing up a stretch of five straight road games and having to take on the hottest club in the NHL, to boot. Little wonder, then, that it took less than three minutes for Buffalo captain Michael Peca to plow into Sergei Gonchar at center ice and less than four for a fight to break out between Dixon Ward and Joe Murphy. The Sabres were very much on edge.

Time, after all, was running out on them. They were in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, three points out of the final playoff spot, and only 16 games remained in the season. If they didn't get it together soon, they were going to spend a looong summer mulling why a team that made the Stanley Cup Finals last year couldn't even make the playoffs this year.

Unfortunately for the Sabres, they didn't do much to help their situation against the Capitals. They gave up a first-period goal to Jeff Halpern, and Ron Wilson's crew sat on it until very late in a 2-1 victory. But even though Buffalo played uninspired hockey for much of the first two periods, make no mistake: The Sabres are the club no one wants to face in the first round of the playoffs. And the Caps could very well be that team.

As Ron Wilson was saying last week, "You could finish first [in the Eastern Conference] and have to play Buffalo in the first round and then you're sweating bullets. Heck, you could finish third and have to play them."

Actually, sixth place is probably out of reach for the Sabres now. They're 13 points behind Ottawa, and the Senators have two games in hand. But seventh place is definitely doable and if the Capitals win the Southeast Division, they could be the second seed and have to swallow the dreaded Buffalo pill. The Senators had that pleasure last year, and they probably still don't know what hit them; the Sabres swept them in four games.

The reason Buffalo gives people palpitations, of course, is because of its golden goaltender, Dominik Hasek. Hasek took a breather yesterday and turned the netminding over to Martin Biron, but he's slowly working himself back into shape after missing half the season with a groin injury. Any club with Hasek, the league's two-time MVP, has a chance to win it all as the Sabres have shown the past two years.

"I won't say they cheat more when he plays," Olie Kolzig said, "but they seem to get more of a jump when he's in the net."

The Sabres are just looking for some way, any way, to sneak in the playoff door. They have essentially the same team they had last season only free agent Joe Juneau, a trading-deadline pickup from the Caps, wasn't re-signed and there's no reason they can't contend again. But as winger Vaclav Varada pointed out, "The Eastern Conference is all bunched up right now, and everybody's playing real well. I don't know what to say [about Buffalo's prospects]. We've just got to fight through this [1-3-1 stretch], play better on the road and hopefully get some help from other teams."

Wilson doesn't even want to think about playoff matchups at this point and he hopes his players are on the same wavelength. He would rather have them concentrate on tomorrow night's game here against Florida. If the Caps win that one, they move ahead of the Panthers and take sole possession of first place. (They're tied for the lead with 80 points.)

"We just want to keep this thing going, stay focused, tweak a few things and try to play our best hockey at the end of the year," he said. "That's what we did two years ago. We had one of the best records [in the NHL] in the last two months of the season, and it carried over into the playoffs."

Under no circumstances, he said, "do you want to be thinking [late in the season]: Well, the last three games don't matter. And if we drop a couple we can play this team in the first round instead of that team. Because [sometimes] you get on a slippery slope and you can't get off. I've seen it happen. When you try to pick your poison you can sabotage things."

Still, it's hard not to think about a Caps-Sabres series. Especially after what happened yesterday. Peca's hit on Gonchar early in the game left Sergei with a probable concussion, and in the closing seconds of the contest Steve Konowalchuk decided to even the score. He invited Peca to put up his dukes, and the Buffalo center came out of the scrap with a separated shoulder.

"You live by the sword, you die by the sword," Kolzig said. "I think Kono just wanted to send a message to Peca that if you do something like that, you've gotta be accountable for it."

Naturally, the view from the Buffalo bench was decidedly different. "What goes around comes around," Ward said. "I don't think this is the last game we play against Washington this year. Things have a way of evening out in this league."

Sounds like the makings of a lovely playoff series. I'll bring the bandages.

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