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Sabres need to find their mojo heading into Game 5 against Rangers

The Canadian Press
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The Hockey News
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Sabres need to find their mojo heading into Game 5 against Rangers

The Canadian Press
By:

On the eve of a pivotal Game 5 between the New York Rangers and his Sabres in their Eastern Conference semifinal (7 p.m. ET), Ruff was paying as much attention to his team's mental state as he was to its sluggish power play.

"Look forward to playing the game," Ruff said after practice. "We've worked hard all year long to be one of the teams still playing. I think everybody, and maybe I'm including all of you (media), are looking at it like we should be a little bit down. There's nothing to be down about. There's going to be battles throughout every series.

"I think sometimes the expectations are that we should be 4-1 and 4-0 or we shouldn't lose. We're playing against a good team. Every game is tight. Look around (the NHL), there are no easy games."

Ruff, who already has a Jack Adams Award in his trophy case and is nominated for another this season, wanted to make sure his team's confidence level hasn't dipped after dropping two straight at Madison Square Garden to leave their series tied 2-2.

"I woke up and the sun was shining and it was such a beautiful day driving down here," Ruff said. "After I met with you guys (Wednesday) I went home depressed. And I got to thinking, 'What are they thinking?' We've got a game in our barn, we've got a hell of a team, let's get going again.

"Let's put the mindset in the right place."

There are some who believe the Sabres are feeling the burden of expectations that comes with winning the President's Trophy as the NHL's No. 1 overall team.

"Honestly I don't believe that," said Sabres forward Dainius Zubrus. "I know we finished first, but this league is more balanced that it used to be. Look at last year at what a team like Edmonton did. I know we're a good team and I know what we're capable of. We just need to play desperate hockey and play up to our capabilities."

Two days off between games hasn't helped. This is a city that gets a little antsy with its sports teams thanks to an 0-4 record in Super Bowls and 0-2 record in Stanley Cup finals. Ruff doesn't want that negative tension to filter from the radio to his dressing room.

"Everybody gets a little scared because there's been a past," said Ruff. "Hah, we're not going to be scared. We're going to play our game."

He reinforced that positive message to his players.

"I told them today, 'There hasn't been an ounce of quit in you guys all year long, not one ounce,"' said Ruff. "And that's been the most impressive part about it, they've answered every challenge."

The challenge has never been greater this year as they're faced with stealing back the momentum from a Rangers team that's feeling confident after stifling the NHL's top offence through four games.

"The first 10 minutes tomorrow are going to be pretty key," said Sabres co-captain Chris Drury. "We know are fans are going to be juiced up and we know (the Rangers) are going to come out pretty hard, they got to be feeling pretty good after winning two in a row."

The Sabres, it could be argued, have only played one great game this post-season. They admittedly never found their A game in a five-game, first-round series win over the No.8-seeded New York Islanders. A tremendous effort in a 5-2 Game 1 win over the Rangers had people thinking the top-seeded Sabres were back where they belonged, but after stealing Game 2 and losing a pair at MSG, the Sabres are still trying to find their mojo.

"We just haven't played a complete game," said Drury. "There's been flashes of it. But certainly in the playoffs against a team as talented as the Rangers, 40 minutes or 20 minutes isn't good enough."

But what if the Sabres can't find their A game because they're not being allowed to play it?

"We've been battling through some obstruction getting in the zone," Ruff said in a veiled message to the NHL's head office. "I don't necessarily think that we should have to battle through arms reaching out and stuff like that. But it's stuff we have battle through."

The speedy and skilled Sabres depend on the post-lockout officiating crackdown on obstruction and interference to thrive.

"I just thought, especially when we were skating in the third (in Game 4), we shouldn't be denied our ice going into the zone," continued Ruff. "And I thought there were a few times, especially on Derek Roy and a few guys, once it's dumped, their defenceman has to turn and go - he can't try to eliminate us from going in to forecheck.

"But I've been telling the guys, 'You have to work through that."'

The power play has also been a major factor. The Sabres have only three goals on 25 power-play chances, and that's not going to cut it.

"I thought Game 4, it sucked the wind right out of the sails on us," Ruff said of his struggling power play. "I don't think we've been very good on the power play. We talked about it, we've met about it, we've worked on it for two days. I'm not going to sugarcoat it, we need to be better."

It's not just about goals, Ruff said, but scoring chances.

"Let's create positive energy with that, create opportunities and zone time," he said. "Get your three or four opportunities at the net, if it goes in it goes in, if it doesn't, you go, 'Ooh, that felt good, we did a good job with that.' You bring that back to the bench and that spills over."

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Sabres need to find their mojo heading into Game 5 against Rangers