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By David Staba

Whaddaya know -- the Sabres might not suck anymore.

They may be watching the playoffs on television for the second straight year, but Buffalo finishes its lost 2002-03 season inspiring more optimism than derision for the first time since Dominik Hasek left town.

Riding a season-long four-game winning streak into the final week of the National Hockey League's regular season is enough to quell the customary chants of "Ooh, Ah, Sabres on the golf course." Three of their four foes last week were also playing out the string, as well, but the overtime win against perennial Stanley Cup contender Colorado was singularly impressive.

So was the way the Sabres dropped the Avs, Panthers, Canadiens and Hurricanes. Goalies Martin Biron and Mika Noronen each turned in a pair of strong performances, with Noronen earning his second and third wins of a very long season. Their lineup of youngsters and trade deadline acquisitions started blending, with chronic underachiever Taylor Pyatt torching Montreal with his first NHL hat trick on Friday and Miroslav Satan, Maxim Afinogenov and Daniel Briere each scoring a power-play goal the next night.

In Carolina, Buffalo overcame the absence of defensemen Rhett Warrener and Brian Campbell, kept home due to their possible exposure to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, along with the accompanying worries.

For a team that allowed a chaotic ownership situation to snuff its season before it started, winning on the road without two of its top blue-liners and amidst concerns about a new, potentially fatal disease was a major step.

Suddenly, a franchise that spent the last two seasons avoiding financial and artistic bankruptcy looks like one of the league's up-and-comers. Since January, the Sabres have been winning at a playoff-worthy rate, with an intensity that should give Lindy Ruff at least one more season to pad his team record for coaching wins.

Briere has looked like a steal since coming to Buffalo from Phoenix for Chris Gratton, whose career with the Sabres will be remembered more for the constant trade speculation surrounding him than anything he ever did on the ice.

Along with Satan and Afinogenov, who looks like he's finally recovered from the lingering effects of a mysterious offseason concussion, Briere gives the Sabres a core of players who can score goals in ways other than accidentally kicking the puck into the net, an element missing since Buffalo's uniforms were blue and gold.

Tom Golisano's successful ownership bid is starting to wipe away the memories of the Adelphia Era, as well the failed extortion attempt of Mark Hamister and his pals at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

The NHL's future remains in question, with a cataclysmic labor showdown looming before the 2004-05 season. But first, there's the matter of next year. For the first time since Adelphia's stock price started plummeting, that's cause for hope, rather than dread.

Eric Curry had barely regained his senses before promoter Tony Holden started telling the boxing world about his plans for Curry's conqueror, Joe Mesi.

After Mesi's second-round stoppage of the blown-up welterweight in the boxing backwater of Tulsa, Okla. on Friday, Holden spun a highly creative tale of a mega-card at Ralph Wilson Stadium in June, featuring a title defense by heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, the next fight on Mike Tyson's comeback journey and Mesi's next step up the ladder.

It sounds good. But whether Holden, best known as the promoter of former contender Tommy Morrison, has the wherewithal to stage such a blockbuster is another matter. Lewis and Tyson aren't likely to get in any ring for less than a $10 million guarantee apiece.

Holden has been an advocate for creating health-insurance and pension programs for boxers, and won the admiration of Team Mesi for risking legal action by Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing in staging Mesi's Tulsa fight.

On the surface, taking a fight against an unknown foe at an Indian casino in Oklahoma that wasn't televised anywhere seemed to have little upside for Mesi -- all risk, no gain. But the pending fight forced his camp and Leonard's to reach an out-of-court settlement the day before, ending a legal battle that threatened to stall Mesi's career. And for an unbeaten heavyweight, a win is a win, even if almost nobody saw it and it came against someone no one ever heard of.

Some questioned why the fight wasn't staged in Buffalo, where Mesi's fight against David Izon in October sold more than 15,000 tickets. It's tough to imagine, though, how a one-sided win over a clearly overmatched rival would have done anything to build, or even maintain, Mesi's local marketability.

After the contentious end to their relationship with Leonard, Mesi and his father/manager, Jack, seem unlikely to lock themselves into another exclusive deal of any length with anyone. With a 25-0 record and unquestioned drawing power in Western New York, they don't need to.

With Mesi on the brink of serious contention, Holden provides another promotional option, along with Allan Tremblay of Orion Sports Management, who staged two Mesi bouts at the Niagara Falls Convention and Civic Center in 2001.

But a Lewis-Tyson-Mesi tripleheader? Don't start saving up for those tickets quite yet.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter and the editor of the BuffaloPOST. He welcomes email at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 1 2003