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Sabres: We're going for it

It's a tricky line the Buffalo Sabres are trying to walk. They won't hesitate to say they can win their division. Yet they refuse to say they're playoff-bound.

Either way, as they begin their busiest month of the year, the rallying cry this March is much better than the one that's been around the last few times the month has arrived:

"We want eighth!"

Eighth? Not this time. It'll take quite a collapse for the Sabres to fall to eighth place in the Eastern Conference. The organization recently began its playoff ticket drive, and it's hardly a waste of postage fees.

The Sabres host the Atlanta Thrashers tonight in HSBC Arena in a nontelevised affair. They're returning from the Olympic break in fantastic postseason position, fourth in the 15-team conference. Eight teams make the playoffs.

The Thrashers and General Manager Don Waddell -- who guaranteed his fans a playoff spot and also left Ryan Miller off the U.S. Olympic team -- sit in 10th place. The Toronto Maple Leafs are ninth.

But the gap is huge.

The Sabres, starting a run of 17 games in 30 days, have 26 games remaining. Their worst month this season was January, when they went 6-4-1. Say they slip a little further and go .500 the rest of the way. That would make them 49-28-5.

To catch Buffalo in that scenario, the Leafs would have to close the schedule with a 22-3 pace. The Thrashers would have to go 23-2.

Playoffs anyone?

"No, no. We haven't talked about that," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Tuesday. "Until you're in, you're not in."

Left wing Jochen Hecht added: "We're not in the playoffs. We've got to keep working hard, keep our momentum -- regain it now after the break."

While they won't admit the postseason drought of three seasons is over, the Sabres will readily announce their goals. They want to win the Northeast Division. And they want to win the Eastern Conference.

With 77 points, the Sabres trail division-leading Ottawa by just two points and conference-leading Carolina by five.

"Our goal is going up, keep climbing," defenseman Henrik Tallinder said. "We want to be at the top of the conference, the top of our division. There's no reason why we can't."

The Sabres haven't been able to talk like that for a while. After the same number of games (56) in 2003-04, the Sabres had just 53 points. Their goal then was to climb from 10th place to eighth.

"It was hard the years before," said Hecht, who returns from a knee injury tonight. "It was always in reach, but of course the start of the season we kind of messed that up, and that's where the points were missing.

"This year, we had a good start, had a little breakdown, but we've been consistent throughout the year. It's nice to see that we're in a good position where we could go a little further in the standings."

This month will prove a lot.

"Everybody's schedule is tough. I think we have one of the toughest," Ruff said. "I don't know if there's another team that plays 17 games in 30 days. But I think the advantage we have built in is we've utilized four lines. We've been a pretty balanced team when it comes to ice time."

The forwards get a fresh Daniel Briere back tonight. The co-captain, who had sports hernia surgery, will play his first game since Dec. 16. The defense may be haggard, with Teppo Numminen and Toni Lydman just getting back into the country from the Olympics.

So while the playoffs shouldn't be a worry, there are still a few things to keep Ruff's mind occupied.

"As a coach you always tend to worry too much," Ruff said. "You worry about everything. You worry about trying to continue at the pace you left off. You worry about the players that aren't here. You're worried in Danny's case, 'How's Danny going to play first game back?' There's always concerns.

"We'll drop the puck, we'll get at it, and we'll see where we're at."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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