Sabres recoil from loss of LaFontaine


Someone should bottle the Buffalo Sabres and coach John Muckler. What they have is character and a dogged commitment to the game plan.

When Pat LaFontaine tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, that might have been the end of the Sabres. Though Alexander Mogilny and Dale Hawerchuk were still in the lineup, the Sabres had a built-in reason for failure.

Last Thursday, Buffalo learned LaFontaine, the American-born forward who nearly won the points title last season, would not be available until next season.

"I had hoped," LaFontaine said after his first practice since the injury on Nov. 13. "But as soon as I stepped on the ice, I knew it wasn't going to happen. It was just gliding. . . . I can't play now. But, after being on the ice, I know I can come back and be as good as new, and just knowing that gives me peace of mind."

Everyone in Buffalo can have peace of mind. When LaFontaine went down, Muckler tore up his game plan. Gone was the all-out offensive attack. Mogilny, the NHL's top goal scorer a year ago with 76, and Hawerchuk, who has scored at least 30 goals in 10 different seasons, no longer would be purely offensive weapons.

In Muckler's new game plan, everyone would have to be committed to defense.

They have done it with an amazing consistency.

With 11 games left in the regular season, the Sabres have safely tucked themselves into sixth place in the Eastern Conference. Mogilny (28 goals) and Hawerchuk (31) have done their share of backchecking, and the Sabres have a chance at finishing as high as third in the conference.

Muckler takes little credit.

"It's been two good goalies and a total team commitment to the work they have to do," he said, pointing to Dominik Hasek (27-16-6, 1.93 goals-against) and Grant Fuhr (10-11-3, 3.89).

Muckler makes it sound easy. But it isn't. Ask any former NHL coach whose team had the talent to win, but not the commitment.

Portland clinches

The Portland Pirates (formerly the Baltimore Skipjacks) beat the American Hockey League's top two teams during the weekend and clinched a postseason spot. The Pirates defeated the Atlantic Division-leading St. John's Maple Leafs, 6-3, and followed with a 9-5 rout of the Northern Division-leading Adirondack Red Wings.

Today, Portland leaves on a six-day, two-game road trip that includes a rematch with the Red Wings tomorrow and a game Sunday at Rochester.

The Pirates have lent defenseman Lorne Knauft to the Flint Generals of the Colonial League for their playoffs. Knauft, who signed with the Pirates last week, formerly played with the Generals.

You've got your troubles . . .

And the Flyers have theirs. Word is if Philadelphia fails to make the playoffs for the fifth straight year, general manager Russ Farwell probably will lose his job. And if Farwell is out, coach Terry Simpson could be, too.

In a lot of ways, the Flyers resemble the Washington Capitals. They outplay their opponents, only to lose on what Philadelphia Daily News writer Les Bowen describes as "their trademark 'Oh my God!' goal." The Flyers, like the Caps, need better work from their special teams, but instead of getting blasted by their coach, Simpson is attempting massage therapy, trying to bolster fragile egos.

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