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Sabres, Knicks Living A Dream?


They are a low-seeded team from New York that began the playoffs with little hype and only a smidgen of hope.

Now, their sport's biggest prize is tantalizingly close, so much so they can almost touch it. Their legion of believers, too small to count only a few weeks ago, is swelling in numbers with each improbable victory.

Move over, New York Knicks. The Buffalo Sabres also are the improbable team living the impossible dream in this springtime of surprise.

The Sabres, seventh seeded when the Eastern Conference playoffs began in April, are tied 2-2 with the Dallas Stars going into Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals Thursday night at Reunion Arena.

Think about that: The Sabres, who never have won the NHL championship and realistically couldn't have expected to win it a few weeks ago, are two victories away from hoisting Lord Stanley's cup.

Pretty heady stuff for a team that entered the playoffs on little more than a Buffalo wing and a prayer.

Â"Now, it is 2-2, and anything can happen,Â" Sabres forward Jason Woolley said.

Much of it already has. The talent-superior Stars have outshot Buffalo 60-30 in the last two games and 128-75 overall, yet have only outscored them 9-8 in the lowest-scoring Stanley Cup finals in 30 years.

Only once for a 26-second span at the end of Dallas' 4-2 victory in Game 2 has either team led by more than a goal.

Â"These games are pushing you to the limit, testing everything you're made of mentally and physically,Â" Mike Modano of the Stars said Wednesday.

He also warned everyone to not expect anything different in the rest of this closer-than-close series.

Â"I don't think you're going to see either team score more. We need to understand the need to win 1-0 or 2-1,Â" he said. Â"We've had bits and pieces of a good game, but we haven't put it together for three periods.Â"

The Stars, the two-time defending NHL regular season champions, still have two big advantages: more stars and home ice edge in what now is a best-of-3 series. Game 7, if necessary, would be in Dallas on Tuesday.

But the longer the Sabres hang on, the longer the Stars don't put many of those shots behind hockey's best big-game goaltender, Dominik Hasek, the longer Dallas must wonder if Buffalo is a team of destiny.

Â"I still think we are fairly evenly matched. Dallas is obviously a little better team than us, but if we play like a team I still think we can beat them,Â" Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said.

The Sabres did in Game 4 Tuesday in Buffalo, preserving a 2-1 lead over the final half of a game decided mostly by two grievous Dallas giveaways. Both Sabres goals, by Dixon Ward and Geoff Sanderson, were unassisted.

As the Sabres' Jason Woolley said, every game gets bigger and the stakes get higher with every game in a best-of-7 series.

Â"Now we're feeling more confident,Â" the Sabres' Jay McKee said. Â"We albelieve that if we play as we can, we'll win this.Â"

Much of that confidence emanates from Hasek, who challenged his teammates before Game 4 to be more aggressive and take more gambles, even if it forced him to face more breakaways.

Hasek responded by stopping 30 shots and clearly frustrating the Stars.

After the game, Dallas' dressing room was littered with water bottles with the labels torn off Hasek endorses the water and his picture is on every bottle.

Â"It is getting a little heated, and frustration is building on both sides,Â" Modano said. Â"It is time to dig in and get dirty because there is a huge prize on the line.Â"

Dallas, which had 14 more regular-season victories than the Sabres, might get a lift Thursday from the possible return of scoring star Brett Hull.

Hull scored goals in each of the first two games before leaving Game 3 in the first period with a strained groin. He sat out Game 4 against his wishes because the Stars didn't want to risk losing him for the series.

Â"He was doubtful last time, so he's questionable this time. That means he's one step away from probable,Â" coach Ken Hitchcock said Wednesday.

Hull will participate in contact drills Thursday morning before the Stars decide if he will play that night.

Â"This series is kind of just getting started,Â" Hitchcock said.

No wonder the Sabres were surprised to learn that Dallas already has plans in place for a festive Stanley Cup championship celebration.

Â"We have been the underdogs each series now,Â" McKee said. Â"We are happy with the way things are going and we want to disappoint the Dallas fans by breaking down their parade.Â"

©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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