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Clinging to division lead, Sabres challenge Jackets

by Brian Hunter
SABRES (32-17-7) at BLUE JACKETS (23-27-9)

Last 10: Buffalo 3-6-1; Columbus 5-5-0

Season Series:
This is the only meeting of the 2009-10 season between these teams. R.J. Umberger scored twice to lead Columbus to a 6-1 rout in Buffalo in the most recent matchup on Nov. 14, 2008.

Big Story: The Blue Jackets will attempt to get the Claude Noel era off to a 2-0 start after they won their new coach's debut by a 2-1 score over the Stars on Thursday. Columbus is 11 points out of eighth in the Western Conference entering play Saturday, so at this point only a prolonged winning streak will get the Jackets back in the race.

Team Scope:

Sabres: It's been some time since Buffalo had to seriously worry about its standing at the top of the Northeast Division, but it's possible Ottawa could be top dog by the close of play Saturday night. The Senators trail the Sabres by just a single point as they chase their 12th straight win in Toronto. But the main worry for Buffalo will be bouncing back from a tough 4-3 loss on home ice to Carolina on Friday. Drew Stafford scored a pair of third-period goals two minutes apart to give the Sabres a 3-2 lead, but they let it slip away.

"Everybody's just a little on edge, maybe," goaltender Ryan Miller said. "We should be ready to play. We have to be able to get rid of habits, get rest, and play. There's a lot of hockey left."

Blue Jackets:
In its first game following the dismissal of Ken Hitchcock, the coach who led Columbus to the first playoff berth in franchise history last season, the team play an inspired game behind the goaltending of Steve Mason, who carried a shutout into the final minute. After winning the Calder Trophy, the dreaded sophomore slump seems to have plagued Mason for much of this season. If he could turn things around under Noel, the Blue Jackets might still have a chance. On Thursday night it looked like they did.

"We looked like a different team," captain Rick Nash said. "(It was) a totally different vibe out there tonight. It was nice."

Who's Hot:
Buffalo defenseman Andrej Sekera registered a goal and two assists Friday and has lit the lamp in consecutive games after having played only once since Dec. 27. … Nash has five goals and six assists in his last 10 games for Columbus.

Injury Report:
Patrick Kaleta missed the Sabres' game on Friday with a bruised foot. … The Blue Jackets placed Mike Commodore on injured reserve with a charley horse in his left leg, where he joins Rostislav Klesla (groin). Forwards Fredrik Modin (bruised foot) and Derek Dorsett (hand) are day-to-day.

Stat Pack:
Miller has allowed three goals or more in six of his last eight games after just eight such occurrences in his first 40 games. … Columbus has the seventh-best power play, connecting at a 20-percent clip. Their 12.7-percent success rate last season was the worst in the League.
Puck Drop:
The past couple seasons Lindy Ruff was just trying to get Buffalo into the playoffs. It didn't happen. The Sabres coach isn't going to panic over a battle for first place with more than two dozen games still left in the regular season.

"I know you face tough stretches," Ruff said. "My job is to keep everything even keel."

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