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by Zac Hirschbeck / Buffalo Sabres

Following a change of pace in the form of a 3-on-3 tournament Wednesday, the Buffalo Sabres returned to the ice on Thursday morning to prepare for their final two regular season games.

Although the players enjoyed the opportunity to let loose and have a little bit of fun with their teammates, they also understood the necessity to refocus and prepare for their upcoming opponents.

“It’s been a pretty tough season here at some points, but you have to remember that you love what you do and yesterday was a good way to do that,” Patrick Kaleta said. “It was good to bond a little more as a team, but with two games left to go, you have to play your heart out and give everything you got.”

The Sabres’ penultimate game, which is also their final road game this season, will see the club take on one of the NHL’s hottest teams in the Columbus Blue Jackets.

With their 5-0 win over Toronto last night, the Blue Jackets have now gone 11 straight games without a regulation loss (10-0-1), one short of their franchise record.

Although they have long been eliminated from playoff contention, Columbus’ strong play hasn’t gone unnoticed by Sabres head coach Ted Nolan.

“You know they’re going to come at you with their best and you better bring your best,” Nolan said. “The one thing with Columbus right now is that they’re on a roll, and barring injuries they would probably be in the playoffs right now. They’re a very good team. They’re well coached, they have some really good young players and it’s going to be a good challenge for us.”

That challenge is one that the team welcomes. While putting an end to Columbus’ win streak is appealing in itself, the Sabres may also have the ability to ruin Pittsburgh’s playoff aspirations back at the First Niagara Center on Saturday.

“We want to play spoiler and we want to compete,” said Tyler Ennis. “There are guys playing for jobs and everyone wants to get better. That’s how you have to look at these last two games.”

Thursday’s practice also represented the last time the Sabres would convene for a regular season practice.

Although this season has been a difficult one, Nolan managed to find positivity in his club’s final skate together.

“To even watch their passing today, I think they’re improving and their confidence is getting better too,” Nolan said. “In one way it’s sad that it’s over, but in another way it’s fun to look at how some guys really improved.”

That improvement has also helped Nolan devote his time entirely upon the present day. While there remains uncertainty as to how the club may be re-shaped during the offseason, Nolan has continued to concentrate on his current responsibilities.

“Over the course of my career I’ve really learned to embrace now and today,” Nolan said. “You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow and no one does, but you certainly know what you have control over today.”

With Andre Benoit still nursing an upper-body injury, the Sabres are expected to recall a defenseman from Rochester prior to tomorrow night’s game. The club has yet to make a decision as to who will take Benoit’s place. The Amerks play in Cleveland tonight against the Lake Erie Monsters to start a three-games-in-three-nights weekend.

Matt Hackett also practiced for a second straight day on Thursday. The young goaltender has not seen game action since March 28 in Colorado due to soreness and swelling in his surgically-repaired right knee. While Nolan was encouraged by Hackett’s ability to join his teammates on the ice for a second straight day, he’s unsure as to whether or not he will start either of the club’s final two games.

Chad Johnson continued to work his way back from injury as well. He split time with Hackett during practice, but will not travel with the team to Columbus.

Practice Lineup

26 Matt Moulson – 22 Johan Larsson – 63 Tyler Ennis
82 Marcus Foligno – 25 Mikhail Grigorenko – 12 Brian Gionta
19 Cody Hodgson – 84 Phil Varone – 20 Zac Dalpe
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 37 Matt Ellis – 36 Patrick Kaleta

24 Tyson Strachan – 47 Zach Bogosian
41 Andrej Meszaros – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 51 Nikita Zadorov (Deslauriers rotated in with Benoit absent)

35 Anders Lindback
31 Matt Hackett
33 Chad Johnson

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