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The Buffalo Sabres can be forgiven if they don't seem excited about clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the playoffs this season. Coming within one victory of reaching the Stanley Cup finals less than a year ago can do that to a team.
The Sabres look to use their final three regular-season games - starting with their home finale Thursday against the Boston Bruins - to smooth out the rough edges and gain some momentum heading into the postseason.
Lindy Ruff's team wrapped up the top spot in the East with an impressive 4-1 victory at Pittsburgh on Tuesday. It's the first time the Sabres (51-21-7) are the Conference's best team since 1980 when Scotty Bowman was coach.
"Everything we do now really doesn't matter," Sabres forward Jochen Hecht said. "We're focused. We've accomplished a little thing with winning the conference. But it's not our main goal."
Last season, the Sabres reached the Conference finals before losing to eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina in seven games. That prompted owner Tom Golisano to keep the nucleus of the team together - bucking the trend of previous teams that often dealt away high-priced players at the trade deadline - despite it being close to the $44 million salary cap.
Ruff liked what he saw Tuesday as his team killed off eight penalties and limited the Penguins to 23 shots. Buffalo also improved to 8-2-1 in its last 11 games.
"Our determination, I thought, in a lot of situations was greater than theirs," Ruff said. "And I thought in a lot of situations we imposed our will over theirs. That was the message we wanted to send."
The Sabres also may be getting a key offensive player back in time for the playoffs. Right wing Maxim Afinogenov, who has 23 goals and 57 points in 53 games, may be available after missing 21 games with a broken right wrist.
Overall, the Sabres need one goal to reach 300 for the first time since compiling 335 in the 1992-93 season. Their recent strong stretch of play comes after an 0-2-1 stretch, something Buffalo needs to avoid in the postseason.
"Obviously, come playoff time, we don't want those stretches. We want to be at our peak," Sabres forward Jason Pominville said. "We want to be confident come the playoffs. And winning games is one way to be confident."
Boston (35-39-6) is hoping to salvage the final game of a three-game road trip as it winds down a disappointing season in which it collapsed down the stretch. The Bruins were shut out 2-0 by Montreal on Tuesday, suffering their fourth straight loss and ninth in the last 10 games.
"I thought (the team) stuck together very well," Bruins coach Dave Lewis said on the team's official Web site. "We worked hard, we generated chances and right now we are just sort of snake bitten in the scoring department."
Hannu Toivonen, recalled from Providence of the AHL prior to the game, made 28 saves in a losing effort.
The Sabres are 5-0-2 overall against the Bruins thiss season. Boston recorded a 4-3 victory at Buffalo on Feb. 17 as Petr Tenkrat scored the lone goal of the shootout in the eighth round.