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Four games on schedule tonight

by Adam Schwartz
The NHL regular season starts Saturday in Europe, but to tide a ravenous hockey fan over, there are four preseason games Thursday night.

At 7 p.m., the Buffalo Sabres visit Nationwide Arena, and an hour later the Nashville Predators host the Carolina Hurricanes.

Later, the Dallas Stars host the Chicago Blackhawks and the San Jose Sharks visit the Vancouver Canucks.

Here's what to watch for:

* The Sabres, who made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2006 and 2007, missed the playoffs in 2008 for the fourth time in the last six seasons. Over the summer, Buffalo acquired goalie Patrick Lalime and defenseman Craig Rivet in hopes of getting back into the postseason.

* Buffalo has lost four of its first five preseason games, including a 3-2 loss to the Wild on Wednesday night; they have scored more than three goals just once.

* Blue Jackets left wing Rick Nash, who was a co-winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals in the League in 2004 with 41, had a career-high 69 points last season. Nash, who has thrived despite never playing alongside a premier playmaker, has scored at least 30 goals in three of his last four seasons.

* Columbus' Pascal Leclaire, who emerged as the Blue Jackets' starting goalie last season, had 7 shutouts in his first 16 games but had just two the rest of the season. Leclaire, whose favorite TV show is South Park, was selected eighth in the 2001 Entry Draft.

* The Hurricanes, who won the Stanley Cup in 2006, have missed the playoffs in four of the last five seasons. Last season, the Hurricanes were edged out by the Washington Capitals on the last day of the season.

* Carolina backup goalie Michael Leighton spent the bulk of last season in the American Hockey League and played just three games with the Hurricanes, but he's played in two preseason games, during which he's posted a League-leading 0.65 goals-against average. Since Carolina decided not to re-sign Cam Ward's backup from last season, John Grahame, the job is Leighton's to lose.

* Nashville right wing Patric Hornqvist, who is expected to play on one of the Predators' top two lines this season, had a goal and an assist – his first points of the preseason – in the Predators' 3-1 victory against Columbus last Saturday. Hornqvist, who was named the first star of the game, was drafted in the seventh round (No. 230) by the Predators in 2005.

* Chicago goalie Cristobal Huet, who is playing for his third team in less than a year, has never played more than 42 games in a season. Huet, who was traded from Montreal to Washington on trade-deadline day, has won more than 20 games just once in six seasons in the League.

* Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell, who signed an eight-year contract with Chicago this summer, had the second-most assists among defensemen in the NHL last season with 54. Campbell, like Huet, is playing for his third team in a year after being traded from Buffalo to San Jose last February.

* Stars center Mike Modano, who is the all-time leading American-born scorer with 1,283 points, was relegated to third-line duty last season when Dallas acquired Brad Richards from Tampa Bay last February. Despite his lessened role, Modano still had 7 assists and 12 points in Dallas' 18-game run to the Western Conference Finals.

* The Sharks, who have finished first or second in the Pacific Division since 2004, have been eliminated in the second round of the playoffs in the last three seasons. San Jose, never has been in the Stanley Cup Final, but has made the playoffs nine of the last 10 seasons.

* San Jose center Joe Thornton, who has led the League in assists each of the last three seasons, hasn't had a negative plus-minus rating since 2001. Last season his plus-18 was third on the team.

* Vancouver center Pavol Demitra, who most likely is going to play on one of the Canucks' top two lines, had the third-most assists among players in the Northwest Division last season with 50 while playing in Jacques Lemaire's defense-first system in Minnesota.

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