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Jason Woolley can't quite get a handle on what's happening to him.

The 31-year-old from Toronto has never had a season like this. Woolley is used to being Buffalo's top point-scoring defenseman, a power-play stalwart and a steadying presence on the ice. When Woolley looks in the mirror, he sees a good hockey player.

But when he looks at the 2000-01 stat sheet, Woolley sees a disappointment. With only one goal and 13 assists in 45 games, Woolley seems unlikely to reach the 30-point plateau he has surpassed in all of the last six years. A year-old knee injury has kept him underconditioned, and that has led to an agonizing cycle of shaky play and "healthy scratch" status.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff has benched Woolley for a total of eight games this season, most recently against Atlanta Tuesday. Woolley didn't know Wednesday whether he would dress tonight, when the Thrashers come to HSBC Arena (7; Empire; Radio 107.7 FM).

"It's very hard to play like that, and it's in the back of your mind when you're out there," he said of his intermittent appearances in the lineup. "I'm not used to being sat every time I screw up or make a mistake. It just seems that right now every mistake I make ends up in the net."

That happened Sunday, when Woolley's turnover led to Montreal's first goal in the Canadiens' 4-3 win over the Sabres. The error landed Woolley back on the bench, and led to a renewed spate of Woolley-bashing among fans. Meanwhile, Woolley continues to walk around with a far-away look in his eyes.

"I'm not sure whether to play solid defense and not get involved offensively. I feel like if I'm just playing defense, I'm not doing my job," he said. "This has been a season where my production hasn't been there. I haven't gotten many bounces. I don't know if I've played a hell of a lot different than I did last year, but sometimes that's the way it goes, and that's the frustrating part."

Ruff attributes Woolley's struggles to the fact that doctors have told Woolley not to run or ride stationary bikes, because that sort of off-ice conditioning could irritate his knee injury. Woolley's knee still isn't 100 percent, and his skating has lagged along with it.

"We're going to go with a lot more on-ice conditioning, where hopefully we can get him back to where 30 seconds on the ice isn't the end of his shift," Ruff said. "I don't yet think he's reached the level of where he should be skating."

Woolley and Ruff spoke for about half an hour Tuesday, and the player came away with a newfound resolve. Instead of a million-mile gaze, Woolley wore a look of determination and almost childlike optimism at Wednesday's skate.

"We talked that, if I'm at the top of my game, I'm not coming out of the lineup," he said in hushed tones, as though raising his voice might jinx the possibility. "That peace of mind, you can't put an amount on that."

But that peace of mind seems tenuous, endangered by every bad bounce or momentary lapse in judgment. Woolley played for Ruff in Florida before coming to Buffalo and knows the coach hasn't liked what he's seen out of Woolley this year. With Ruff ever-willing to bench the defenseman, every game is like an audition.

"I've been with him for a long time," Woolley had said Tuesday, before the two men had their talk. The player had just finished a post-practice skate with fellow scratches Eric Boulton and Vladimir Tsyplakov, and his voice was quiet and thoroughly, achingly miserable.

"I know he's disappointed in me right now, and there's no one more disappointed than me."

Ruff, who needs someone to spark the Sabres' power play, seems to be growing impatient with Woolley's slow recovery. He wants Woolley back, to be sure, but he can't wait much longer.

"When he's at the top of his game, he's very valuable to us," Ruff said. "But if he's just an average defenseman, that isn't any good to us."

There will be a brief pregame ceremony tonight to honor the newest inductees into the Sabres' Hall of Fame: Jerry Korab, Mike Ramsey and Mike Racicot. . . . J.P. Dumont, who strained a muscle in his side during Tuesday's second period, saw a doctor Wednesday and is questionable for tonight's game. . . . Defensemen Jay McKee and Rhett Warrener missed Wednesday's practice. Ruff said both players were suffering from slight groin injuries, but likely will play tonight. . . . Sabres prospect Ryan Miller, a sophomore goalie at Michigan State, broke the NCAA's career shutout record of 16 when he blanked Alaska Fairbanks, 3-0, Saturday.

Buffalo Sabres owner John Rigas and General Manager Darcy Regier confirmed Wednesday there is very little chance they will trade goalie Dominik Hasek before the March 13 deadline. Regier said he has fielded no calls from other teams interested in acquiring The Dominator. However, Regier left the door slightly ajar.

"There's no intention to trade Dominik Hasek this year," Regier said over lunch with the media. "You want the truth? That's the truth. But if you want me to sign something that says, "Absolutely, positively, under no circumstances,' whether it's Dominik or anybody else, I'm not going to do it."


Who's hot: Miroslav Satan has three goals and three assists in the past five games.

Record last 5: 3-2 Power play: 37 of 249 (14.9%)

Penalty killing: 28 of 219 (87.2%)

Injuries: Denis Hamel (knee surgery), J.P. Dumont (questionable, strained muscle)

Fast fact: Sabres still have the lowest goals-against total (133) in the Eastern Conference.


Who's hot: Ray Ferraro had a hat trick Tuesday.

Record last 5: 2-3

Power play: 40 of 273 (14.7%)

Penalty killing: 57 of 277 (79.4)

Injuries: Yves Sarault (shoulder), Yannick Tremblay (shoulder), Gord Murphy (thumb), Frantisek, Kaberle (foot), Andreas Karlsson (hip flexor), Adam Burt (back) and Petr Buzek (neck)

Fast fact: Three Thrashers - Odgers, Lambert and Staios - each have more than 100 penalty minutes this season.

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