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Vanek scrimmages with 'Black Aces'

by John McGourty
BUFFALO -- Thomas Vanek took a step forward Saturday in his fourth-straight day of skating since suffering an ankle sprain last Saturday in Game 2's 5-3 loss to the Boston Bruins.

Vanek had only skated around the perimeter of his teammates during morning workouts and slapped at a few pucks. He gave coach Lindy Ruff a negative report after each session.

Vanek skated with the "Black Aces" -- five of the Sabres' reserves and some of the call-ups from the Portland Pirates -- at the suburban Amherst Pepsi Center, the team's practice facilty, while Ruff spoke at a noon press conference at HSBC Arena here. So he was unable to give a post-skate report.

"We're going to try to get him involved in some battle drills, which he hasn't been involved in," Ruff said. "We'll get a pretty good idea of where he’s at. I think you run the risk when you start getting him involved physically that you could set it back. We don’t know. I would hope today’s a good day, he gets through it and we can ramp up the type of practice that he can go through."

Jochen Hecht, who has undergone two surgeries on his left pinkie finger in the past few weeks, had his cast removed Friday and has been given the green light to resume fitness training.

"Still weeks away," Ruff said. "He's able to work out."

While the Sabres played their best game of the series in Game 5's 4-1 blowout of the Bruins, Ruff was insistent that his team played equally well in Game 4 in Boston.

"It’s shown the type of team we are. We’ve had some disappointments in this series," Ruff said. "Even the disappointment of Game 3, the way we came out in Game 4. I can’t say enough about how hard and the type of work we put into that game and we ended up losing it. That’s the frustration.

"You can fight that frustration, that disappointment. We were a pretty quiet group going into Game 5. You get concerned as a coach. You put that much work into a game, and you make the mistake we did in giving that winning goal the way we gave them. There’s a lot of frustration."

Told Saturday morning that his coach was concerned about the quiet dressing room before Friday's game, captain Craig Rivet smiled and said, "The calm before the storm."

"The hope tank starts to get a little low," Ruff said about being down 3-1 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Quarterfinal after Thursday's double-overtime, 3-2 loss. "We tried to point out all the good things in the game and get them back on the right track mentally. I think the guys in the room, if you go to (Mike Grier, Rivet) and those guys, got the guys (mentally) in the right place.

"I think the hope tank just got filled up again, which is to be expected after playing like that. We hope that our hope tank went up. We’re hoping with that we can raise the level of the doubt tank on the other side."

Defenseman Steve Montador said the pressure of leading the Northeast Division for nearly the whole season helped prepare the Sabres to rise to the occasion in an elimination game.

"We're probably in the toughest division in the whole League," Montador said. "We're the only division with four teams in the playoffs. And Toronto never gave anybody an easy night. We were challenged really hard the whole year. Ottawa got off to a slow start but they rallied down the stretch. So did Montreal and that (Boston) team as well. They picked up the momentum somewhat from where they left off last year. They had to answer some questions there and they've done that.

"I think we were challenged all year long and I think the coaching staff prepared us as well as they could to understand that there are no easy games. From Game 1, you can't find an easy game. If you look at this series, and the playoffs so far, lower-ranked teams are giving top-ranked teams tough games and tough periods. The challenge that we're facing in this series, a lot of the experiences that we had this season have prepared us for it."

Meanwhile, in Boston, coach Claude Julien gave his team the day off. They'll practice Sunday. Marc Savard skated as he continues to work on his fitness in hopes of returning to the team during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Bruins said Thursday that Savard has been medically cleared only to work out, not for competitive practices or games.

Both Ruff and Julien said they were not surprised that the NHL rescinded Zdeno Chara's automatic one-game suspension for his instigator penalty, misconduct and game misconduct at the end of Game 5.

Ruff, who said he was aware the suspension was rescinded before he left HSBC Arena Friday night, said, "It really doesn't matter what I think. It really doesn't. I don't think that little slash hurt him, though. An instigator's an instigator, and the referees deemed he was the instigator. I can find lots of little slashes in the game if you want me to find that."
Ruff was referring to Paul Gaustad's slash that Chara responded to with punches with 0.5 seconds left in the game.

"It was a cheap shot that was unwarranted and he responded," Julien said. "He just stood up for himself."
Julien called the rescission "just common sense."

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