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Slumping Sabres visit improving 'Canes

by Matthew Mankiewich

SABRES (32-18-8) at HURRICANES (22-30-7)

Last 10 -- Buffalo 2-6-2, Carolina 7-3-0

Season series -- Third game out of four, but the first for the Sabres at the RBC Center. The teams met last Friday, back when the Sabres' losing streak was a mere two-game bump in the road, and the Sabres had a lead midway through the third. But Carolina scored twice in the final eight minutes and won 4-3. Buffalo won the first meeting, 5-1 on Nov. 28.

Big story -- The lead is gone. On Jan. 18, the Sabres were tied with the Capitals for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and had an 11-point lead on the Senators in the Northeast Division. A 2-7-2 slide, coupled with Ottawa winning 12 of 13, translates into a first-place tie. Now they have to keep up with their Ontario neighbors by facing a Hurricanes team that's playing more like the one that went to the Eastern Conference Finals last spring.

Team scope:

Sabres -- After benching some players and giving extended time to others in their 3-2 shootout loss to the Bruins on Monday, coach Lindy Ruff shifted lines around in practice on Wednesday.

Thomas Vanek was dropped back to play with Tim Kennedy and Mike Grier, while Clarke MacArthur took Vanek's place with Derek Roy and Drew Stafford. Paul Gaustad centered Adam Mair and Matt Ellis.

"I'm looking for a road lineup that will get us the win," Ruff said to the Sabres' Web site prior to the team's flight to North Carolina. "We're trying to spread it out where one team can't put out their so-called [top] defensive pair against one line or two lines. Now that it's spread out amongst three, maybe we can get a little more balance."

Hurricanes -- Since the start of 2010, the Hurricanes are a team nobody wants to play. They hadn't strung three wins together prior to the first of the year; they've done it three times since. Carolina has won eight of 11 since Jan. 21 and four in a row at home in the RBCCenter.

Coach Paul Maurice couldn't put his finger on any one reason for the improvement.

"I don't think it's fair to do that, because a lot of parts of our game have come together," he said. "I do think Eric [Staal] getting healthy has been a huge part of that. We've added a forward -- (Chad LaRose) came earlier and that made a big difference, and now (Tuomo) Ruutu comes in and that makes a big difference for us. We've had good goaltending."

Who's hot -- Cam Ward going down again hasn't stopped the 'Canes or their goalies -- they've won three in a row. Manny Legace took two, while Justin Peters won one. Legace gets the nod after a solid performance against Florida on Tuesday while Peters is expected to play Saturday against the Devils. Eric Staal had his 11-game point streak interrupted on Long Island last Saturday, but has been held off the board only twice in his last 16 games. Jussi Jokinen, meanwhile, is riding a seven-game points streak.

Injury report -- Buffalo defenseman Steve Montador (hip), scratched for Tuesday's game, should be available. Forward Patrick Kaleta (foot) skated on his own before practice. … Carolina goalie Cam Ward (back) will be observed by doctors over the next couple of weeks and may be shut down for the season.

Stat pack -- Over the last 11 games, the Hurricanes have converted on the power play at a 22-percent rate while the penalty kill has allowed only three goals in that stretch for a 93 percent kill rate, including 17 chances in a row. The Sabres' 86.9 percent penalty-kill rate tops the League over the whole season, but their power play has been ice-cold over their last four games at 1-for-17. … Legace is 4-0-0 with a 3.59 goals-against average in four career starts against the Sabres, while Buffalo's Ryan Miller is 0-3-1 with a 3.47 GAA in his last four games. He hasn't lost five in a row since the team's 10-game slide two seasons ago.

Puck drop -- "It's phenomenal, just phenomenal. It's just hard work and dedication and you just take your hat off to the guys. We're just working our butts off." -- Legace on the Hurricanes' recent success.

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