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Sabres Savor Scars of Victory

May 24, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ His face covered in scratches and scars, Buffalo Sabres left wing Vaclav Varada looked as if he walked through barbed wire to get to practice Sunday. Instead, the red marks were souvenirs of victory.

In the Sabres’ 2-0 win over the Washington Capitals in Saturday’s opener of the Eastern Conference finals, the biggest heroes weren’t the goal scorers or goaltender Dominik Hasek, who made a quiet 19 saves. The accolades belonged to young players such as Varada, Michael Peca and Curtis Brown, who maintained their poise to shut down a veteran Capitals attack.

``I am surprised,″ said Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff, whose team is the youngest and least playoff-experienced team remaining in the postseason. ``Our young players have played well. An example is Varada, who has played against all the team’s top lines. He’s been a smart player.″

Varada had some physical exchanges with Chris Simon and exchanged a few words with Washington goaltender Olaf Kolzig in Game 1, yet kept enough composure to make only one trip to the penalty box.

``I went to the net hard a couple of times,″ Varada said. ``We exchanged some words, then he let in soft goals. Maybe he was nervous after the hit. That’s the way I want to play. I came here to play physically.″

Peca has noticed.

``He’s just a hard-nosed kid who goes in and finishes his checks. Sometimes it’s dirty, and people hit him back and he just smiles. He feels no pain. He’s cut up most nights with stitches.″

Peca has also been a pain for the Capitals. He got under the skin of Washington’s leading playoff goal scorer, Sergei Gonchar, frustrating the Russian into retaliation and three subsequent trips to the penalty box.

``As the series goes on, he’s not going to feel free reign,″ Peca said.

The Sabres, who haven’t advanced this far since 1980, have prided themselves on staying loose throughout the playoffs. Riding an eight-game winning streak and with a chance to go up 2-0 on the road with a victory in Monday night’s Game 2, the dressing room is as relaxed as ever.

``It’s just a humble group,″ Peca said. ``We keep everything in perspective. At times we don’t realize we’re in the Eastern Conference final because we’re having so much fun.″

With a game in hand, Ruff said he wants to encourage a more open offensive attack. The Sabres took only 20 shots in Game 1.

``We came in here trying to steal a game,″ Ruff said. ``Now we can really let it out in Game 2.″

Washington coach Ron Wilson would also like to see more offense from his team.

The Capitals took just 19 shots Saturday and had maybe five decent scoring chances, mostly in the first period before Peca’s line made some defensive adjustments. Not counting empty-net goals, Washington has scored just three goals in three games, and has been outshot 427-269 in the playoffs.

``We look for pretty plays instead of just directing things at the net from anywhere,″ Wilson said. ``That is something that we are going to have to start doing. Otherwise, we are going to be out of the series in a hurry.″

Wilson credited some of the Sabres’ defensive success to their quick back-to-back goals at the start of the second period.

``You feel you have to open things up,″ Wilson said. ``It’s really difficult.″

Wilson also said his players’ legs started to give out in the second period, perhaps a result of the seven-day layoff between series, and that he will shorten the shifts at the start of Game 2. He gave his players the option of a day off to rest Sunday _ many of them took it _ and refused to sound any panic alarms.

``I’m going to give our guys the benefit of the doubt,″ Wilson said. ``It is just one game that we lost. We could have won last night and lose on Monday night, it doesn’t change anything. We just have to come out of this 1-1.″

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