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Matt Moulson couldn’t have done much more in his Sabres debut. Still, Lindy Ruff’s return to Buffalo went a little better.

The longtime leader of the Sabres won in his coaching debut on the visiting bench Monday night. Dallas opened a 4-1 lead against the predictably slow-starting Sabres and held on for a 4-3 victory.

Moulson, acquired from the New York Islanders for Thomas Vanek on Sunday, scored twice as Buffalo dropped to 2-11-1 overall and 0-7-1 in First Niagara Center.

“It’s kind of a huge relief,” Ruff said. “It was great to get off to a good start. We got a little bit loose and allowed the home team back in the game again. I guess from the Buffalo side it was great to see the emotion come back in the building as they started to come back. It turned out to be a darn good hockey game.”

Again, the Sabres lost it early.

The good news in the first period was the Sabres’ doubled their season output in opening frames. They went from one goal to two. The bad news was Dallas scored three times.

First periods have been the bane of Buffalo’s existence, and that didn’t change. Dallas opened the scoring, becoming the 13th opponent in 14 games to do so. Moulson scored on his first shot just 27 seconds later to tie, but the fun was short-lived. The Stars beat Ryan Miller two more times before intermission to take a 3-1 lead, putting the Sabres in a 19-2 hole during first periods this year.

“Obviously, we can’t be spotting teams,” defenseman Mark Pysyk said. “It’s the same thing over and over.”

While the goals were pretty, the top highlight was a tribute to Ruff. The Sabres showed a video package on the scoreboard during the first commercial break, and the fans rose with a standing ovation that continued long after the clip ended.

Ruff bit his lip and waved to the appreciative crowd in an emotional scene.

“It was awesome,” Ruff said. “I’ve always said the fans of Western New York and this area have been tremendous. I watched for a little while, but I thought it may get a little emotional, so then I didn’t watch.

“That was first class by the organization and something they didn’t have to do but did.”

His team gave him a better tribute by opening a 4-1 lead midway through the second. Just as the crowd began a loud “Fire Darcy” chant about General Manager Darcy Regier, the Sabres answered – twice.

Former Dallas alternate captain Steve Ott, playing his first game against the team he spent a decade with, pulled Buffalo within 4-2 on the power play. Mikhail Grigorenko set him up with a cross-ice pass, giving the forward his first point in 17 games.

Moulson’s second goal came from his comfort zone. The left winger, like his trade counterpart, is fond of the front of the net. He got a piece of Christian Ehrhoff’s shot at the top of the crease, pulled the puck back and lifted home a backhand as he fell. The announced crowd of 18,295 roared to welcome him to town.

“I’m not going to lie,” Moulson said. “That was the most nervous I’ve been for a game since probably my first game I played in the NHL. I had a bit of butterflies in the stomach, and it kind of settled me down out there.”

Vanek makes his debut tonight when the Islanders host the Rangers. He could have been paid handsomely to stay in Buffalo. A source says the Sabres were willing to make him the NHL’s highest-paid player.

He’d rather win than take part in a rebuild, which has been his message since last season.

“I enjoyed my time there, but I didn’t want to be a part of that,” Vanek told reporters in New York following his first practice with the Islanders. “You train all summer long, practice every day, and you want to be on a competitive team that has a chance. Right now we struggled there. It’s hard to leave when you do struggle. I was one of the leaders, but at the same time the reality is it’s business and I’m happy to be an Islander.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com