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Briere says he's close to returning

Daniel Briere is determined to play hockey this week.

The competitive nature of the Buffalo Sabres co-captain came through again Monday, when he declared he wants to return from his abdomen surgery earlier than planned. Briere was scheduled to be out until the Olympic break concludes at the end of the month, but he wants to play before NHL teams break up Sunday night.

"When you're so close to playing, it's going to be frustrating if I don't have time to get into a game before the break," Briere said after practice in HSBC Arena before flying to Canada.

The Sabres have four games before the break, starting tonight in Montreal. Briere ruled himself out for tonight, but there's a chance he could come back Thursday, Saturday or Sunday. He is participating in full-contact practices.

"He's anxious to play," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "He's cleared for physical stuff in practice, which we're giving him a pretty good dose of today. . . . I wouldn't rule him out for later in the week."

Briere hasn't played since Dec. 16 and has played only three times since Nov. 23 because of abdominal and pubic bone pain that required surgery on Jan. 5. He has 14 goals and nine assists in 24 games.

"I'm not pushing," he said. "I'm going to let my body tell me if I'm ready or not. That was a pretty good practice I had today. I felt pretty good. There's still a few areas that I'm not 100 percent.

"The point where we're at -- the team's doing so well, the break coming up -- I'm not going to risk it just to get into one game or two before the break. When I'm feeling ready and I'm 100 percent I'll get back in. I'm hoping it's going to be before the break, and I have the feeling there's a good chance that I'll be ready before the break."

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Two honors came Ryan Miller's way, one that he'll take every week and one that sounds good but is still a major downer.

The Sabres goaltender was named the NHL Defensive Player of the Week on Monday. He won three times last week, posting a 1.63 goals-against average and .944 save percentage in victories over Atlanta, Philadelphia and Ottawa.

He also was named to the U.S. Olympic team taxi squad, which, as of now, gives him the same rights as every other American -- he can watch the Turin Games on television.

"As I understand, I'm not going to be going over there unless needed, so, you know, it's an unfortunate honor, I guess," Miller said. "It's great that they feel like I can contribute to the team, but I'm not on the team."

Miller's best shot to play in Italy rests with Robert Esche and the Flyers. Esche is still slowed by a groin injury, and he and Philadelphia management may decide two weeks off are better than playing in the Games. The taxi squad members -- Miller, Carolina's Matt Cullen and New Jersey's Paul Martin -- can go to Italy and practice but can't stay in the Olympic Village with the rest of the team.

"I'm disappointed I'm not going to get to be a part of it, but it's nice to be mentioned with the squad. There's still a chance I could go if Esche needs rest," said Miller, who will not travel unless he's promoted to the U.S. team. "It's a situation where I need to stay in shape for the Sabres, and honestly I'd rather not go. If I'm not going to be participating in any way, I'd rather be taking time to chill out."

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The same question was asked repeatedly at Monday's practice: Where's Mika Noronen?

The Sabres' third goalie was absent, making all involved wonder if the crease quandary had finally been solved. But Noronen was just ill, the Sabres said, and he did not make the trip to Montreal.

"Mika's got the bug that some of the players previously had," Ruff said. "We'll give him today and probably tomorrow [off] and get him back to practice on Wednesday."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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