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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -Give Ales Kotalik bonus marks for effort - and semantics.

The Buffalo Sabres forward creatively categorized his team's current rough patch as anything but what most - even his coach, Lindy Ruff - are referring to as a bona fide slump.

"You guys always like to call it a slump. It's your job," Kotalik said, referring to reporters after practice Tuesday. "I would call it a stretch of results we are not used to."

Call it what you will, but there's no debating Buffalo is struggling through its worst stretch of the season.

The Sabres are winless in their past three games, following a 3-2 shootout loss at Boston on Monday; and 2-4-1, including three straight home losses, in their past seven.

It's a considerable downturn for a team that went 10-0 to open the season to match an NHL record; became the fifth team in league history to win 20 of its first 25; and was 24-5-2 before losing consecutive games.

Buffalo (31-11-4) still leads the Eastern Conference, but the rash of losses serve as a strong reminder that things won't get easier in the second half of the season.

"I think it's officially a slump. We haven't been good enough," Ruff said. "When you get in this, it's not easy to get out of."

Ruff is concerned because he doesn't want the skid to linger beyond Saturday, when the team opens a five-day NHL All-Star break. Buffalo has three games prior to the break, starting with a home game against Boston on Wednesday.

"There's a lot of urgency to get out of the funk tomorrow. And not any later than tomorrow," Ruff said.

The struggles are the result of sloppy play and a sputtering offense.

Buffalo committed a combined 52 giveaways in consecutive losses to Toronto and Tampa Bay last week. The Sabres were more efficient Monday, but were outshot 19-8 in the first period and squandered a 2-1 lead.

Worse still, Buffalo's scorers haven't been productive enough to bail the team out as they had done earlier this season.

The Sabres, who still lead the league with 172 goals, have been held to three or fewer goals in seven of their past eight games. And Buffalo's power play is struggling in particular, having converted two of its past 26 chances.

"I think we're squeezing a little bit," goalie Ryan Miller said. "Some of the trouble we've had is trying too hard and not trusting each other."

Miller isn't overly concerned.

"It's nothing to start panicking about," he said. "It's nothing to start burning playbooks over and tearing each other apart. I think you have to go through situations like this to learn and grow and become a better team."

The Sabres draw confidence from how they bounced back from an even worse stretch late last season.

After going 1-7-1, Buffalo won seven of its final eight regular-season games, a surge that fueled the team's playoff run, which ended with a Game 7 loss to Carolina in the Eastern Conference finals.

Ruff, however, is concerned that this season is a little different because the Sabres are no longer being discounted as a no-name team that caught some opponents by surprise last year. Buffalo entered this season as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, and had three players voted in as All-Star game starters.

"We were the team always doing the hunting before and now we're a team that's being hunted. And recently, we haven't handled it well," Ruff said. "We've got to pass this test."

Kotalik remains confident.

"We know when we're on top of our game, there's not too many teams in the league that can stop us," Kotalik said. "I don't see any point why we should be concerned. There's ups and downs, and we've always been up. Here comes a little down. And we'll see how we respond to that."
I hope Buffalo wins at least two of those three games, they are:

Wed Jan 17, 2007 HOME Bruins 7:00 PM ET
Fri Jan 19, 2007 HOME Canucks 8:00 PM ET

Sat Jan 20, 2007 AWAY Canadiens 7:00 PM ET
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