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Tallinder elevates teammates

Henrik Tallinder has missed 35 games this season because of injuries. And the Sabres defenseman swears he didn't see a minute of those games live. Tallinder says if he's not skating, he can't bear to be spectating, either.

"I never watch the games when I'm hurt," Tallinder said Tuesday morning after the Sabres' game-day skate. "I'm usually working out or something like that. Obviously, I see the replays of the goals and stuff like that. But I have a hard time watching."

Tallinder hasn't been alone lately. For much of January, watching the Sabres had to be a chore for even their most devoted fans. The Sabres meandered through a four-week stretch in which they bore only a faint resemblance to the team that had dominated the NHL for the first three months of the season.

As the Sabres are quick to remind us, all teams go through such difficult stretches. It's part of hockey, the law of averages. Still it can't be a coincidence that Tallinder was sidelined with a sprained ankle during the Sabres' mini-slump, and that they were not the same defensive team in his absence.

After Tuesday's home 7-1 rout of Boston, the Sabres are 15-1-1 with Tallinder in the lineup. All right, so it's safe to say they could have beaten a reeling Bruins team without Tallinder. But it's become pretty evident that they're a different team when he's on the ice.

On a team of offensive virtuosos, Tallinder is a quiet, steady force. He doesn't bring fans out of their seats. He doesn't deal out bone-crushing hits. All he does is make the simple, inelegant plays that win hockey games. The 6-4, 213-pound Swede is the Sabres' best defenseman, and possibly their most indispensable skater.

"He's got great speed and great reach," said coach Lindy Ruff. "He's a great defender. The last time he came back [just before Christmas], our penalty kill was a lot better with Henrik there. It's a big boost for us."

The entire defensive corps is elevated by Tallinder's presence. His return on Tuesday allowed Ruff to use defenseman Nathan Paetsch up front to boost the offense. Toni Lydman has played some of his best hockey since being paired with Tallinder. But Lydman has been an ordinary player at times with Tallinder on the sidelines.

"I think last year, especially in the playoffs, we really played well together," said Lydman, who had two assists Tuesday. "It seems to be easy to read off each other. Once you've played with a guy for a little bit of time, you get to know his tendencies and what he tries to do when he gets the puck."

Tallinder, 28, was coming into his own a year ago when he broke his left arm in Game Three of the Carolina series. Late in October, he broke the arm again and went to the sidelines -- with the Sabres unbeaten in 10 games. He came back just before Christmas, but suffered a high ankle sprain at Ottawa on Jan. 3.

So it's been one thing after another for Tallinder, who played all 82 games in the regular season a year ago. He says the ankle isn't 100 percent, but it's getting close. He played 18 solid minutes against the Bruins and was a plus-3 for the night, good for the third star.

The Sabres are happy to have him back. Going back to last season, they're 22-2-1 in their last 25 regular-season games with Tallinder in the lineup. They seemed poised to win a Stanley Cup when they lost him in the playoffs. It's hardly a coincidence.

"He's a force," said Daniel Briere, "especially with the new rules, with the long reach, the way he skates. He just calms everything down back there. I don't know if he was at his best tonight, or if he's even 100 percent, but it doesn't seem to matter."


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