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PUPPA RESUMES SKATING GOALTENDER PROGRESSING FROM BACK STRAIN

Sabres goaltender Daren Puppa, who has been sidelined since mid-November with a lower back strain, skated for the first time in more than a week Monday and said he should be ready to play again within a week.

Puppa described his forced idleness as "boring" and "frustrating," but conceded that the only cure for his nagging back injury is rest and patience.

"It's something you can't rush," Puppa said before Monday's solo skate at Sabreland. "It's probably better to take care of it now than to let it act up later in the season."

Puppa hasn't appeared in a game since performing poorly in the Sabres' 4-2 loss at Edmonton on Nov. 16. He suffered the back injury in that game, though he still isn't sure just when or how.

Despite the injury, Puppa dressed for several games after the Edmonton loss. Since Nov. 23, he has been listed as day-to-day.

"Gradually, slowly, he's getting better," said trainer Jim Pizzutelli. "It needs time. The 'Big M', Mother Nature. It would be a problem if it wasn't increasingly getting better."

At the time of his injury, Puppa was struggling with a 2-5-3 record and a 3.61 goals-against average. During Puppa's absence, Clint Malarchuk (7-5-4, 2.69 GA) has been stellar in the nets and, in the minds of some, achieved the status of No. 1 goaltender.

"No, I'm not worried about (losing his No. 1 status)," said Puppa, runner-up to Montreal's Patrick Roy in last year's Vezina Trophy voting. "There never was any status. It's whoever's playing the best, anyways. It's a game-by-game thing, and you're obviously going to go with the hot goalie. You'd be crazy not to."

For the time being, Sabres head coach Rick Dudley has only one proven NHL goalie to call on and is looking forward to having his goalie tandem intact again.

"We feel we have the best goaltending combination there is," Dudley said. "It's nice to have them both healthy when you're playing so many games. Daren just needs rest. One thing you don't want to do is bring him back at less than 100 percent."

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