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Sabres rule out Connolly for final three games but Vanek set to return @NHL

Left-winger Thomas Vanek is looking forward to enjoying a tuneup before the Buffalo Sabres open the playoffs next week. Centre Tim Connolly's return will have to wait.

Vanek practised for the second straight day Wednesday and expects to return to the lineup by this weekend when Buffalo closes its schedule with back-to-back road games at Ottawa and New Jersey. Vanek has missed five games with a groin injury, and is not expected to play Thursday when the Sabres play at Boston.

It's a different story for Connolly, who has missed six games with a lower body injury and is not cleared to skate. Without providing a timetable, coach Lindy Ruff ruled the first-line centre from playing before the start of the playoffs.

Despite his absence, Connolly still leads the Sabres with 65 points (17 goals, 48 assists) in 73 games.

Buffalo will open the post-season at home next week after clinching the Northeast Division title with a 5-2 win over the New York Rangers on Tuesday. The Sabres are currently third in the Eastern Conference, a point behind New Jersey, which also has three games left.

Vanek is eager to use the final weekend to prepare for the playoffs.

"It's always tough to get back from injury," Vanek said. "The speed of the game, getting your legs back and your hands, if I can do that before the playoffs start, I think it would benefit myself."

He's a two-time 40-goal scorer, who's experiencing a down season this year. Vanek ranks third on the team with 23 goals, and is fourth with 48 points in 69 games.

Ruff might have to alter his goaltending plans after an illness forced backup Patrick Lalime to miss practice Wednesday. Ruff said Lalime's status won't be known until after the team arrives in Boston.

Lalime was expected to start two of Buffalo's final three games in order to provide Ryan Miller a rest. Miller has been the Sabres' workhorse in posting a 40-18-8 record to match the team's single-season mark for victories he set in 2006-07.

Add to that, Miller was named the Vancouver Olympics men's hockey tournament MVP after posting a 5-1 record in leading the U.S. team to a silver medal in February.

If Lalime can't play on Thursday, Miller would likely start. Ruff ruled out calling up Jhonas Enroth from the minors, because the goaltender is out with a sprained ankle.

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