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Top line trying to straighten out 'O' Excuses not offered by Roy, Vanek SABRES VS. SENATORS: Faceoff: 7:30 p.m. * HSBC Arena TV: MSG * Radio: 550 AM * Season Series: Senators lead, 1-0

The thinking goes that Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek are among the Buffalo Sabres struggling to find the net partly because their defensive responsibilities have grown with their ascension to the team's No. 1 line.

To their credit, Roy and Vanek don't embrace that reasoning. Good thing, too, because coach Lindy Ruff will have none of it.

When the Sabres host the league-leading Ottawa Senators tonight in HSBC Arena, they need to make sure to put the clamps on Ottawa's big guns -- while still getting some attack from their own offensive forces.

The Senators' top line of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley was broken up for much of Monday's 4-2 win at Montreal, with Alfredsson moved down to the No. 2 line to boost the offense there and Chris Neil sent up top. But the trio could be back together again tonight as Ottawa coach John Paddock has flopped his lines regularly in recent games.

Vanek, Roy and Drew Stafford saw time against the line Thursday in Buffalo's 3-2 loss at Ottawa and so did the trio of Jochen Hecht, Clarke MacArthur and Jason Pominville. Alfredsson had two goals in the game (one on the
power play) but neither was against the Sabres' top unit.

Roy has a team-high six goals but his only one in the last 11 games came on the power play at Ottawa. Vanek has been stuck on four goals for the last six games.

"I don't think [defense] has affected the offense at all," Ruff said pointedly after Tuesday's practice in HSBC Arena. "If we're going that direction, I think we're just trying to find an easy excuse for them for not producing. Everybody has defensive responsibilities. Clarke MacArthur's got them and in the last couple of games, it hasn't hurt him. We can't make excuses for that part of it.

"Playing well in your own end has nothing to do with creating offense. You can't look there. It's how tough it's getting in the offensive zone, where you've got to get to and playing [near the net] that is going to lead to offense."

Against Ottawa, however, defensive play becomes paramount.

"You've got to be aware of when those guys are out there," Vanek said. "You don't leave your zone early, don't try to cheat. When that line is out there, you have to help your goaltender first."

"Defensively we were sound, not turning the pucks over last time," Roy said. "That's what you have to do against that team. They have so much talent that you can't give them extra chances with all their goal-scoring ability. Our discipline was pretty good."

Vanek is hoping to carry some momentum from Friday's 4-1 win over Montreal. He was flying up and down his wing and recorded a pair of assists.

"I'm finding my game the last two to three weeks," Vanek said. "Seven or eight games ago, I started to play better. I'm getting chances again, working hard in practice and hopefully it will come soon where I get some goals."

"He played really well last game moving his feet and moving the puck," Roy said. "He kept things simple. Maybe at the start of the year, he was trying to do too much. We've talked about using his linemates and we just have to get a little luckier around the net and keep working hard."

Ruff said he was satisfied for the most part with the way the Sabres played in Ottawa, a game they were dominating for long stretches of the second period.

"We made two big mistakes that cost us and those . . . were mistakes by defensemen on coverage," Ruff said. "I thought the lines did a good job being responsible against the big line."
e-mail:
mharrington@buffnews.com1

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