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by Staff Writer / Buffalo Sabres
Teppo Numminen (Photo: Bill Wippert)
The Buffalo Sabres did themselves a world of good by beating the Florida Panthers Wednesday night, 5-3, but they still have a Herculean task over the next nine games if they hope to secure a Stanley Cup Playoff berth.

The Sabres are 10th in the Eastern Conference, and while they climbed to within three points of ninth-place Florida, they still trail the eighth-place Montreal Canadiens, who host the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight, by five points.

A slew of injuries to important players severely has compromised the Sabres' season and dashed Buffalo defenseman Teppo Numminen's hopes for a successful campaign after he sat out all but one game last season following heart surgery.

Numminen, 40, isn't flashy, but has been one of the NHL's best defensemen over the past two decades. So good, in fact, that he is the all-time NHL leader in games played (1,370), among European-trained players. And he is the only player from the 1986 Entry Draft still playing. He's also one of the last players who suited up for the Winnipeg Jets.

Although the designation of greatest Finnish player in the NHL probably belongs to Teemu Selanne, Numminen's former Winnipeg teammate, Numminen certainly is the most accomplished Finnish defenseman. He has 117 goals and 519 assists for 636 points and is plus-56.

One of the best Finnish defensemen ever, Kimmo Timonen of the Philadelphia Flyers, concurs.

"He's been a great leader for our country and a great player over here, too," Timonen said. "I think all the Finnish guys should be proud of what he's done for our country and for hockey."

While Numminen never has won a Stanley Cup, that's due more to the quality of his former teams than his own efforts. Numminen is "the book" for strong positional play, great outlet passes and getting pucks on net from the point. He's a great skater, can take a hit -- though he rarely throws them -- and his on-ice awareness ranks with the best who ever played the game. How else do you get to play 20 years in the NHL?

Numminen watched in frustration this season as teammate after teammate fell victim to injuries, and then it happened to him. Numminen took a puck in the mouth Jan. 17 against Carolina and missed six games. He came back for eight games, but has played only two of the past 13 games. It appeared he was a healthy scratch, a player declining because of age, but recently coach Lindy Ruff explained Numminen's absence as "more of an infection than an injury," and he's been listed as having an ankle problem in the past three games.

This is not the way Numminen wanted his career to end and he's not sure that it will be.

"Well, I don't know if this will be my last season," Numminen said. "For the past five years, my thinking has been to play the season and see how I feel afterward. That's how it was last summer. I considered my health and my mental health. I have to take a month off before I start planning for the next season. That's how I've been going through the years -- take a month, do nothing, rest my body and see how I feel."
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