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Vanek nears return; Savard still doubtful

by John McGourty
BOSTON -- Buffalo Sabres left wing Thomas Vanek, who hasn't played since suffering an ankle sprain in Game 2 a week ago Saturday, may be ready for Game 6 here Monday, Vanek and coach Lindy Ruff said Sunday.

The Sabres trail the Bruins, 3-2, in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series and are facing elimination (7 p.m., NESN, MSG, CBC).

Injured Bruins center Marc Savard, who hasn't played since suffering a concussion on March 7, practiced with the team, took a lot of shots, did a little hitting and said he felt much improved. Savard said he has a medical test scheduled for Monday and doubted he would play in Game 6.

If the Sabres win, Game 7 is Wednesday in Buffalo. Of the 234 teams that have faced a 3-1 Stanley Cup Playoff series deficit, only 21 have swept the final three games, as the Sabres are trying to do. They won Game 5, 4-1, in Buffalo on Friday.

Vanek skated for the fifth-straight day and reported that his ankle felt sore but he thinks he can play. He walked with a noticeable limp after practice, according to the Sabres' website.

"We have to be realistic about it," Vanek said. "Like I said before, if we both feel like I really can't help the team there's no point in going and taking a spot away from somebody else. It's sore. … I felt good, it was a hard practice but I was pretty happy about it."

Ruff said it's up to Vanek to determine whether he's ready to play, adding if he knocks on the coach's door Monday and says he's ready to play, he'll play.

Meanwhile, the Bruins had a full practice Sunday at TD Garden in the wake of the only one-sided game of the series. The Bruins worked on breakouts, cycling, shooting and getting the defensemen involved in the attack. There were several on-ice meetings and some sessions at the drawing board. Coach Claude Julien had several short conversations with players after they performed in drills and was very vocal in illustrating some cycling moves behind the net.

Julien returned left wing Marco Sturm to the top line with center Patrice Bergeron and right wing Mark Recchi. Left wing Milan Lucic skated on a line with center David Krejci and right Miroslav Satan. Left wing Blake Wheeler skated with center Vladimir Sobotka and right wing Michael Ryder, and Steve Begin centered left wing Dan Paille and right wing Shawn Thornton.

The Bruins' defensive pairings of captain Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk, Dennis Wideman and Matt Hunwick, and Andrew Ference and Adam McQuaid remained the same.
"I have to get more involved," said Sturm, who has been held without a point in the five games while going even on the plus-minus scale. "I did it before with 'Bergy' and 'Rex.' I just couldn't bury it. That's why I think they split us up before. I'm really happy to be back on that line.

"I know I have to step it up and hopefully I can respond somehow. We know each other pretty well. It's a big game and we don't want to waste another one, like the last one."

Bergeron was excited about the switch, saying he likes Sturm's quickness and tenaciousness.

"His speed and the way he battles, he gets the puck back," Bergeron said. "When you put the puck in there, you know he's going to be the first one there. … I'm just happy to have him on my side."

Julien changes lines frequently. He has been alternating left wings Lucic and Paille, shifting them between the Bergeron line and Begin's line.

"There's not much to talk about," Julien said. "Those guys have played together before. We've moved guys around all year. There aren't a ton of reasons behind it other than they're familiar faces and I thought it was time to try that out for today. We'll see what we decide tomorrow."

Savard stayed on the ice after the regulars departed and practiced with the "Black Aces," reserves who won't play Monday, shooting at Providence Bruins goalie Danny Sabourin.

"I felt great," Savard said. "It's a tough situation. It's a huge game and I haven't played in a long time. I felt great out there. I was controlling the puck well. I don't know how much you guys watched, but it felt like good hockey. I did some more contact, another step, so we'll see what happens.

"I still have one more test tomorrow. I don't know what the situation is. We haven't talked much about it yet so it's not looking good right now. There's not much I can do right now except work hard and be ready to go when he tells me."

"He's certainly coming around, no doubt," Julien said. "That's all I can tell you right now because that's all we have. We have not yet been told by our medical staff that he's been cleared. There's nothing more we can do with him except working with him and trying to get him in shape."

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