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Sabres have stepped up play over second half

by Arpon Basu
MONTREAL -- So much has been made of the New Jersey Devils' remarkable rise from the ashes this season that a similar, yet not quite so remarkable revival from the Buffalo Sabres has gone practically unnoticed.

Except since we turned the calendar to mark the New Year, the Sabres have the fourth-best points percentage in the Eastern Conference at .643, sitting behind only New Jersey (.714), Philadelphia (.682) and Washington (.662).

Right behind them on that list is the Montreal Canadiens (.632), Buffalo's opponent Tuesday night in a pivotal clash that could cement the Sabres standing among the conference's top eight and that could see Montreal end the night as the Northeast Division leader.

Buffalo enters the game with a three-point cushion in eighth over the Carolina Hurricanes, who host the Ottawa Senators.

The crazy thing about the Sabres' surge is that it coincides almost perfectly with the loss of leading scorer Derek Roy to a torn quadriceps muscle Dec. 23, something that head coach Lindy Ruff feels was a key factor in his team rising to this level of success.

"I don't think it's one thing, I think it's a lot of things," Ruff said. "Derek Roy's injury put a lot of onus on other players to be important players, to play better. We got production from different areas, we had young players step in and play well -- Tyler Myers, who struggled early on, really started to play well for us. Our bottom six, what you look at as your third and fourth line, has been producing."

The Sabres and Canadiens are similar in that way, with both teams having nine players who have at least 30 points this season. Only the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins, with 10 apiece, have more among Eastern Conference teams.

"I think you're looking at two teams that are similar; good speed, good transition, good goaltending," Ruff said. "I expect this to be a real tight game. I don't expect either team to run away with the play."

The Canadiens will be looking to finish off their regular season schedule against Buffalo without a loss in regulation time, entering Tuesday's night's game with a 3-0-2 head-to-head record.
If they can grab a fourth win and the Bruins lose to the Devils at home in regulation, the Canadiens will suddenly find themselves with a one-point lead in the Northeast Division standings for the first time since Dec. 26.

It would add a little more spice to what is sure to be a piping hot final encounter between the two rivals in Boston on Thursday night.

"Boston keeps control of their destiny if they win tonight and we play them next," Canadiens forward Michael Cammalleri said. "We're going to assume they're going to win, so for us to have a chance to (keep up with them) this week we have got to win tonight."

The Canadiens remain heavily beset by injuries, and while defenseman Brent Sopel and forwards Tomas Plekanec, Jeff Halpern and Mathieu Darche all skated with their teammates Tuesday morning, none are expected to suit up against the Sabres.

Also Tuesday morning, defensemen Andrei Markov and Jaroslav Spacek skated on their own for the first time since they each underwent knee surgery. Markov has no chance of a return this season following his second reconstructive surgery on his right knee in a span of six months, but Spacek's arthroscopic knee surgery would allow him to return right around the start of the playoffs.

"They've had to deal with a lot of injuries, but their play has still been really good and they've been winning games," Sabres winger Jason Pominville said. "I mean, look at their last game, they completely outplayed Minnesota. They're finding a way to dig deep."

The Canadiens had a bit of a scare when goaltender Carey Price left Tuesday's morning skate favoring his right knee, but coach Jacques Martin said he will be at his post for the game in what will be a marquee matchup against Buffalo's Ryan Miller.
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