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New-look Sabres face raised expectations after new owner's spending spree

This Sept. 20, 2011 photo shows Buffalo Sabres' Ryan Miller during NHL hockey practice in Buffalo, N.Y. With the spending spree over, it's now on the Sabres to start meeting the high expectations the new owner has raised around a hockey-mad town that's been affectionately renamed \

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This Sept. 20, 2011 photo shows Buffalo Sabres' Ryan Miller during NHL hockey practice in Buffalo, N.Y. With the spending spree over, it's now on the Sabres to start meeting the high expectations the new owner has raised around a hockey-mad town that's been affectionately renamed \"Pegulaville.\" (AP Photo/David Duprey)

BUFFALO, N.Y. - Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula had just arrived at Rochester's Blue Cross Arena to formally announce he had purchased the AHL Americans in June when a sudden realization struck him.

"I walked in the back door and I said to my daughter, 'Just what we need, another hockey arena,' " he said. "So yeah, this is basically No. 3."

The Pennsylvania billionaire—and that's a term the blue-collar, down-to-earth, chicken-wing-eating Pegula abhors—has had a busy and expensive calendar year in which he's spent a fraction of his natural gas-drilling fortune on an unprecedented hockey shopping spree.

First came an US$80-million donation to Penn State, so that his alma mater can launch a hockey program with a brand-new facility. In February, he completed a $189-million purchase of the Sabres, the team he grew up following. Pegula then cornered the western New York hockey market with a multimillion-dollar purchase of the Amerks to re-establish them as the Sabres farm club.

And that doesn't include the near $140 million he's committed on new salaries this off-season in a bid to make the Sabres bona fide contenders.

Ask him how much he's spent, and Pegula says he doesn't know or, frankly, care.

"Believe it or not, I never made a decision in my life based on money," he said. "We invest in our hearts."

If that's the case, the 60-year-old had Buffalo at hello.

In a hockey-mad town that's been affectionately renamed "Pegulaville," the expectations are sky-high as the Sabres prepare to open a season that has the potential of being like none other in the franchise's 51-year history.

"You can't even begin to measure the optimism he has brought in such a short time," fan Kyle Renner said. "The biggest thing is the feeling that the Sabres will one day win a Stanley Cup."

The players are firmly on board with Pegula's Stanley Cup or Bust approach, too.

"It's in our discussions daily, how excited we are with what's happening in Buffalo," defenceman Tyler Myers said. "It's pretty motivating as a player to see that, and want to come to the rink and play for somebody like that."

It starts overseas next week, when the Sabres open against Anaheim in Helsinki on Oct. 7 then face Los Angeles in Berlin a day later.

It'll be the first full glimpse of how far the Sabres have come following an off-season transformation. Backed by Pegula's desire and deep pockets, Buffalo added three core players to boost a team that produced a remarkable second-half 29-11-6 surge—including 16-4-4 under the new owner—to finish seventh in the Eastern Conference before running out of steam in losing a seven-game first-round playoff series to Philadelphia.

In quick succession, the Sabres acquired hard-hitting defenceman Robyn Regehr in a draft weekend trade with Calgary. Days later, they acquired the rights to and then signed offensive defenceman Christian Ehrhoff. The team then opened free agency by signing versatile, two-way centre Ville Leino.

Regehr and Ehrhoff improve a defence corps that lacked depth, bulk and speed. And Leino is being counted upon to provide the Sabres a much-needed, play-making second-line centre to boost the offence.

Goalie Ryan Miller had an up-and-down season, in what could be considered a hangover a year after he won the NHL's Vezina Trophy and backstopped the U.S. to a silver medal at the Vancouver Games. He still won 34 games and matched a career-best with five shutouts, but finished with a 2.59 goals-against average, his worst in three seasons.

Miller, who has appeared in 66-plus games in three of his past four seasons, is expected to get some relief with Jhonas Enroth taking over the backup job. Enroth proved himself last year with a 9-2-2 record, including a 3-0-1 stretch over the final two weeks in filling in for an injured Miller.

The Sabres have confidence they're capable of playing up to the high standards set before them.

"You have a group of guys that want to be here and want to win," forward Jason Pominville said. "It's going to be a fun ride.

"Expectations are high, and that's what makes it even more fun."

It's much the result of Pegula, who has brought a fan's passion to ownership, and delivered hope to a rust-belt region and championship-starved town.

That was evident a few weeks ago, when Pegula popped in to a midtown bar. Dressed in casual pants and a dark blue Sabres T-shirt, he looked like most anyone else in the place as he snacked on chicken wings and sipped red wine.

It was later in the evening when a bartender finally approached Pegula, shook his hand and had the owner sign a life-size cardboard cutout of the Cup, which now rests above the bar.

"I've always said, 'I think the job of an owner of a sports team has one job: To be liked,' " Pegula said. "And there's one way to be liked, and that's to win."

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