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Sabres ho-hum after clinching East

NHL.com @NHL

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -Just inside the door to the Buffalo Sabres' locker room hangs a portrait of the Stanley Cup, a reminder of the team's sole objective this season.

Players pass the black-and-white picture every time they hit the ice. That's why there was little fanfare after practice Wednesday, a day after Buffalo clinched its first Eastern Conference regular-season title in 27 years and first Northwest Division title since 1997.

Forward Jochen Hecht lumped those accomplishments together as "little things."

"Everything we do now really doesn't matter," Hecht said. "We're focused. We've accomplished a little thing with winning the conference. But it's not our main goal."

So don't bother asking the eight-year veteran how he feels about being one goal shy of his first 20-goal season, or that the Sabres have a chance of winning the President's Trophy, awarded to the team that finishes first in the NHL standings - something Buffalo has never done.

"It's a nice trophy to win," said Hecht, whose Sabres trail West-leading Detroit by a point for the league lead. "And our main goal is the Stanley Cup."

It's a realistic goal for a team that returned mostly intact this season with an inflated payroll that nudged against the $44 million NHL salary cap. Buffalo reached the East finals a year ago before losing Game 7 to Carolina, the eventual champion.

The Sabres (51-21-7) plan to use the last three games of the regular season as a tuneup for the postseason that begins next week. After closing its home schedule against Boston on Thursday, Buffalo ends its season with games at Washington and Philadelphia this weekend.

Coach Lindy Ruff is treating this week as a preliminary round, which began well with an efficient 4-1 win at Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

Ruff was impressed that the Sabres limited the Sidney Crosby-led Penguins to 23 shots - including a mere 13 through 40 minutes - and negated all eight of their power-play chances.

"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."

In October, the Sabres won their first 10 games to match a league record. A month later, Buffalo became the fourth team in league history to win 20 of its first 25.

The Sabres' offense leads the league with 299 goals. Their defense is backed by goaltender Ryan Miller, who has matched a team record by winning 38 games.

Buffalo's longest skid was an 0-3-1 stretch last month, which they erased by going 8-2-1 since. The team also rebounded from a three-game losing streak in January to go 11-2-1 in its next 14.

"Obviously, come playoff time, we don't want those stretches. We want to be at our peak," forward Jason Pominville said. "We want to be confident come the playoffs. And winning games is one way to be confident."

The Sabres are getting healthier, too.

Right wing Maxim Afinogenov could be back Thursday after missing 21 games with a broken wrist. Center Tim Connolly has resumed practicing and could be used initially as a power-play specialist. Connolly has not played since getting a concussion during the playoffs last May; he broke a bone below his knee in February.

Buffalo could open the playoffs minus only one regular, forward Paul Gaustad, who isn't expected back this season after having surgery to repair a sliced tendon in his left leg.

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