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In The CreaseIn The Crease Eastern Conference Notebook: Sabres, other teams home alone

Sunday, October 13, 2002

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Bad as Mellon Arena looked with 1,649 empty seats for the opener Thursday, the Penguins were not the only NHL team that failed to fill its building for the first game.

Of the 16 home openers in the season's first three days, six drew crowds short of capacity, including Buffalo, Washington, Ottawa, Florida and St. Louis.

The smallest crowd by far, and the only one smaller than the Penguins', was the 12,224 Thursday for the Sabres' 5-1 rout of the Islanders. It was 6,466 below HSBC Arena capacity and, most alarming, it actually topped the expectations of team officials, who had feared it could be four figures.

Buffalo's season-ticket base is believed to have dwindled to a league-low 6,000 after a tumultuous summer in which the team was put up for sale after owner John Rigas was deposed as head of Adelphia Communications and arrested.

"I guess it is disappointing, but it's reality," General Manager Darcy Regier told the Buffalo News. "Last year, the reality was that we had a lot of complimentary tickets, too, and we were supported by Adelphia to the tune of over 800 seats a game on average. ... These people paid to watch us play."

It's easy to get the idea Bruce Cassidy, the Capitals' rookie coach, is eager to please Jaromir Jagr. "We obviously have expectations of Jaromir, but we also realize that he doesn't do things the way everybody else does," he told the Washington Times. "And we see that as a good thing." Cassidy is aware he will be Jagr's 10th coach in his 13 NHL seasons. "You can get caught up in the hype and say, 'Jeez, every coach he's played for has been fired,' So I've met with him away from the rink. I've tried to work on a relationship with him."

Impressed with the 10 total points the Maple Leafs' top line of Mats Sundin, Alexander Mogilny and Darcy Tucker racked up Thursday against the Penguins? Here's a bigger number: Their combined salary is $16.5 million, half the Penguins' total payroll.

The reason the Devils look so disciplined on the ice in the early going surely has plenty to do with Coach Pat Burns' near-fanatical discipline off the ice. Players are not permitted to have facial hair. Nor can they lean or sit on the edge of the boards during practices. Nor can they show any trace of goofing off. If even one of them does, Burns makes the entire team drop to the ice and roll around. "I had a list of stuff I didn't like at the start," he told the Newark Star-Ledger. "The players have been very receptive."

It might have been the Rangers, rather than the Capitals, who picked up Mike Grier from the Oilers early this week, except for this eyebrow-raising development: New York General Manager Glen Sather was told he couldn't spend the money. That's right, even the Rangers have a ceiling. Only theirs is $75 million.

How long before the Bruins panic and call to ask Byron Dafoe to come back? John Grahame gave up five goals on 20 shots in the opener Friday at Minnesota.

The Senators are expected by many observers to challenge for a spot in the Stanley Cup final, and they seem to have no issue with agreeing. "Sure, it's realistic," General Manager John Muckler told the Ottawa Citizen early in the week. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't think it was realistic. I think this team has a good opportunity to win it all." Muckler might want to check with the Steelers on the merits of making such a claim so early.

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