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A welcome chance

Sabres' defenseman Patrick finally gets his shot at Cup

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Posted: Wednesday June 02, 1999 11:43 PM

  Best defense: James Patrick's experience and penalty-killing skills have helped Buffalo to the Stanley Cup finals. AP

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -- James Patrick was so close to being on a Stanley Cup winner.

Instead, New York traded him to Hartford during the 1993-94 season before capturing the NHL's top prize in 1994.

"When you're a kid you dream of playing in the NHL and winning the Stanley Cup," Patrick said Wednesday. "Once you come into the league you realize how hard it is to win it."

The Winnipeg, Manitoba, native finally has another shot at the Cup. Patrick is a Buffalo defenseman now, and the Sabres, winners of the Eastern Conference championship, will play the winner of the Colorado-Dallas series for the Stanley Cup.

Drafted in the first round by the Rangers in 1981, Patrick found his playing time cut dramatically in the 1993-94 season when he didn't get along with New York coach Mike Keenan. Then came the trade.

"The frustrating part for me was wondering where my career was going and knowing that I no longer fit with the Rangers' plans," Patrick said. "I wasn't being used and I started to question my ability. When I got traded, I was happy to move on and try to get my career back on track."

The Rangers went on to win their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. Patrick went on to Calgary in a trade after spending just 47 games with the Whalers.

After five enjoyable but uneventful seasons in Calgary, Patrick signed with Buffalo as an unrestricted free agent before the season opener in October.

"We were looking for a little maturity and leadership in the back end," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, whose team lost to the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference final last season. "We thought it was something that was lacking in the playoffs last year."

Patrick, who turns 36 in two weeks, has done everything the Sabres have asked, and that has included sitting down. He played in 45 games during the season and was a healthy scratch for 33 more.

A healthy corps of younger defensemen, including newcomer Rhett Warrener, made Patrick seem expendable, and the veteran didn't play in 16 of the last 18 games of the regular season. He also sat out the Sabres' first playoff game, a 2-1 win over Ottawa that saw the Senators score a power-play goal.

Ruff turned to Patrick for his experience and penalty-killing skills.

"He's a great penalty killer and doesn't tighten up in key situations," said Ruff. "He's the type of player you want to surround your young guys with."

Patrick secured a spot with Jason Woolley. Patrick plays the role of the steady, stay-at-home defenseman. That allows Woolley, the Sabres' leading scorer in the playoffs, to charge out occasionally.

"He does a great job killing penalties and moving the puck out of the zone, whether it's banking it off the glass or making a nice pass," Sabres wing Dixon Ward said. "He rarely gets caught."

"He's not flashy, not a big hitter and not a big shooter, but he plays the game smart and he's always ready," Ward said. "He stepped into the second game of the playoffs and I thought he was our best defenseman after playing two games in a month and a half."

Patrick figures this is his last shot at the Cup.

"I'm definitely running out of time," he said. "Right now I'm just thinking about right now and just trying to enjoy this moment."

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