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SABRES 4, BRUINS 3

Bruins trip up on return

Sabres take flight with 2 goals in third

There was a return to action by the team captain. There was, after six games in six cities, a return to the home crowd. And there was the return of some spirited play.

But for all that newness, what the Bruins got at the end of last night's game was the same old theme. The opposition had better chances, better goaltending, and more goals.

Buffalo's 4-3 victory before 14,525 at the TD Banknorth Garden followed a script painfully similar in this young season. So much so that coach Mike Sullivan -- his team having lost three straight and dropped to 0-5 against Northeast Division foes -- knows he's repeating himself.

''The main thing is, we're giving up too many chances," said Sullivan after the Sabres had outshot the Bruins in the third period, 14-6, and in the game, 37-32. ''We have to generate our offense from defense."

He went on to talk about players ''squeezing the stick" and trying ''too hard" to the point that ''it's counterproductive" and how the Bruins ''are giving up too many chances off the rush." There was, said Sullivan, a need to focus ''on details, details."

Asked for a translation, P.J. Axelsson shook his head.

''I'm not sure," said the team's most consistent performer thus far, his second-period goal one of the few highlights, for it had given the Bruins a 2-1 lead. ''I think [he means] we just have to simplify things. We have to play the game more simple."

Joe Thornton, who returned to the lineup for the first time since Oct. 10, had another way of putting it.

''We know that in the third period we have to stay out of the penalty box. We're smart enough to know that," said the captain, whose reappearance had a chance to change the recent landscape, only he and his mates failed to capitalize on a 5-on-3 advantage less than two minutes into the game. Given a similar situation, the Sabres scored the game's first goal not 12 minutes later.

Thus was the tone set for another rough night, one that came on the heels of 4-3 and 5-1 losses in Montreal and Ottawa, respectively.

The only difference is, ''we certainly competed and we're happy with the effort from that standpoint," said Sullivan.

Indeed, the overall effort was better than it had been in Montreal Tuesday night, a game in which the Bruins twice squandered the lead. Young goaltender Hannu Toivonen (33 saves) played well for large stretches of the game, Sergei Samsonov (two goals) showed great flashes alongside Thornton (two assists) and Glen Murray, and there was enough offense thrown at Buffalo's splendid young netminder, Ryan Miller, that the Bruins were never out of it, even though they fell behind, 1-0, 3-2, and 4-2.

Buffalo's first lead came courtesy of Daniel Briere's sixth goal of the season, a sizzling wrist shot off a brilliant feed from heralded rookie Thomas Vanek. Boston's first comeback came courtesy of Samsonov, who jumped all over a rebound in front of Miller and finished off a play that had started with crisp passing between Thornton and Kevin Dallman. They both drew assists on Samonov's goal at 16:46.

With Toivonen anchoring his end, the Bruins played well in a second period that started with Axelsson's goal to provide a 2-1 lead and ended with his failed attempt to convert a breakaway. ''I tried to go over his leg," said Axelsson, who stole the puck at center ice and skated in alone on Miller, but the goaltender kicked out the shot with his right pad as the buzzer sounded.

''It would have been 3-2 and that was better than 2-all," said Axelsson, a reference to the goal by Tim Connolly that tied the score midway through the period, his redirect of a scintillating slap shot pass by Ales Kotalik something Toivonen still hasn't seen. It was Connolly's first NHL goal and pretty much signaled the end of the highlights for the Bruins. Axelsson's missed breakaway came not long afterward, and the 20 minutes that followed? It was a third period that spelled doom, partly because all three penalties that were called went against the Bruins, partly because the offense hardly generated any pressure, and partly because a flipped puck got lost.

The Sabres had gone ahead, 3-2, at 2:08 on J.P. Dumont's third goal of the season and Buffalo's second power play of the night, when Kotalik got behind Nick Boynton and raced for a loose puck. ''I didn't see it," said Boynton. ''I knew it was up in the air, but I couldn't pick it up."

Kotalik didn't have any such problem. He controlled the bouncing puck, raced in on Toivonen, and wedged home a backhander for his second of the season. Hardly a classic, but it gave the Sabres a 4-2 lead that proved too much for the Bruins to recover from, though Samsonov's deflection of a Boynton shot from the point gave them a fighting chance at 14:13.

They showed a desire, perhaps too much, because when the action got heated, the Bruins heard whistles. Three penalties went against them in that third period, much to Boynton's frustration. He was in the box when Dumont scored, one of two penalties he committed, and he wondered aloud if they're calling the game too close these days.

''Hockey's a great sport because you can play physical,"' said Boynton. ''We have to find out how to play [within the new rules]. I think we can do it."

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