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GAME: Buffalo Sabres (18-24-5-1) at Boston Bruins (22-12-10-4).

TIME: Thursday, 7 p.m. EST.

Less than a month ago, the Boston Bruins were in danger of falling out of the playoff race.

Now, they are closing in on first place in the Eastern Conference.

The surging Bruins try to extend a six-game home unbeaten streak when they face the Buffalo Sabres for the third time this month.

After completing December with a 3-7-5 record, Boston was close to dropping out of the top eight spots in the conference. The Bruins, however, have picked up their play considerably in 2004, going 8-1-1 to move within striking distance of East-leading Toronto.

Despite playing without captain Joe Thornton, Boston completed a home-and-home sweep of the New York Rangers with a 4-1 victory Tuesday.

Rookie Carl Corazzini scored his first two NHL goals and Andrew Raycroft made 31 saves to win his sixth straight start.

"Any time you lose your best player, it's tough," Bruins coach Mike Sullivan said. "Obviously, Joe is a huge part of this team and everybody knows that. I thought from top to bottom everybody stepped up their game and helped make up for that loss."

Thornton, the team leader with 44 points, was scratched after suffering a fractured left cheekbone in a fight with Rangers center Eric Lindros in Monday's 5-2 victory. Thornton will not return to the lineup for this game.

He is scheduled to have surgery Thursday, after which he will be listed as day-to-day.

Raycroft figured to split time with veteran Felix Potvin this season, but the rookie seems to have seized the starting job. Raycroft has allowed eight goals during his six-game winning streak after going winless in his previous seven decisions (0-5-2).

The Bruins, 5-0-1 in their last six home games overall, are 5-0-1 in their last six at home against the Sabres.

Buffalo's fading playoff chances took another hit Tuesday with a 4-1 loss at Atlanta.

The loss was the third straight and fourth in five games for the Sabres, who have dropped seven points behind the New York Islanders for the final playoff berth.

"The less we win the more important the next game gets," Buffalo's Jochen Hecht said.

Winning on the road is one of the biggest problems facing the Sabres, 0-5-1 in their last six away from home and 7-15-2 this season.

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