Steve Bernier looked sheepishly at the locker stall next to his. In town for less than 24 hours, the newest addition to the Buffalo Sabres tried his hardest to pronounce the name of the pesky forward he credited for starting the team’s engine in Wednesday’s momentum-changing 8-4 win over Nashville.

“This guy. Key-let-uh,” he said, trying to sound out the name next to the number 36 nameplate. “He really got us going. He just wouldn’t stop.”

Although he stumbled on Patrick Kaleta’s surname, it was the only thing that went wrong for Bernier during his scintillating Buffalo debut. He buried a pair of goals on his first two shots, giving the hosts a 2-0 lead. And his perfect pass to Derek Roy put the Sabres up 6-3 late in the second, giving Buffalo its second three-goal lead in as many periods.

But he saved his biggest assist for the final minutes, coming to the aid of Derek Roy with a bone-crushing hit that sent Nashville’s Jordin Tootoo airborne after the two swapped slashes.

Not a bad way to start, right?

“Awesome,” he said during the third round of questions from reporters on Wednesday. “I never saw it happening like this.”

Bernier was the most improbable catalyst in Buffalo’s most important win of the season. Morale was expectedly low after giving away games against the Rangers and Flyers, both teams Buffalo is trying to edge out for a playoff spot. Then, with the departure of the popular Brian Campbell, Wednesday was ripe for an emotional letdown as the Sabres have struggled to get up for Western Conference opponents without such extenuating circumstances.

But Wednesday was different. It included a new face in the lineup and a pair of new defensive pairings. And in Bernier, the Sabres had the fresh pair of legs they desperately needed for a jolt they can hopefully ride into the postseason.

And give Lindy Ruff credit for again pulling the right strings. Ruff didn’t ease Bernier into the lineup, giving him a spot with Adam Mair and Kaleta on the energy line. He told the newbie to lace up his skates and play his game. And starting the game with the team’s top tandem — Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek — was exactly what Bernier needed to feel welcome.

“When I saw that, I was like, ‘Wow, this is my chance.’ (Ruff) just told me to play my game and he didn’t put any pressure on me,” Bernier said.

And any self-applied pressure was lifted when Bernier scored less than five minutes in on a perfect pass from Roy.

“I felt like the 12 games without a goal were behind me,” Bernier said. “I’m not in a slump any more.”

And neither are the Sabres, who jumped right back into a playoff spot with the victory.

Bernier knows this is temporary, that two-goal nights will be few and far between. And he realizes that fans were distraught about losing Campbell, one of the franchise’s most likable personalities.

But he also knows all he can do is continue to play, continue to grind and continue to stick up for his new teammates. Especially those who put perfect passes on his stick.

No national experts lauded the Sabres acquisition of Bernier on deadline day. But maybe that’s exactly what a former first-round draft choice needed to put his career back on track.

“Sometimes it’s better this way,” he said. “I came in with no pressure. And I had had problems scoring. But right now, I’m just happy. This has been incredible.”

Contact group sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, ext. 2266.

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