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Stingy Habs next challenge for Sabres

The Buffalo Sabres keep saying all the right things about pushing forward in the playoff race. Never mind the fact the standings show they're much closer to the draft lottery than playing any hockey deep into April.

And a quick glance at the numbers make it easy to see their problem. The Sabres are 4-12-3 against the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference -- but 15-8-2 against the rest of the NHL.

They are winless against five of the East's top eight and a combined 0-9 against Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Montreal. The worst mark is the 0-3 record against the Canadiens they carry into tonight's visit from the Habs to HSBC Arena.

The Sabres are 11th in the East while the Canadiens are sixth after pulling out Monday's 5-4 overtime win over Calgary after they blew a 4-0 lead. Buffalo is 10 points behind eighth-place Atlanta but has four games in hand on the Thrashers, who rallied with two late goals to tie and won in a shootout at Florida, 3-2.

"It's a team in front of us that we have to beat," center Jochen Hecht said of the Canadiens after practice Monday in the arena. "It's another four-point game for us.

"They have a good goalie [Carey Price] who's very confident against us. They don't give us a lot of chances, especially when they have the lead. We have to try to get a lead in the first period and hold on to it, make them open up and change their game plan a little bit."

The Sabres have lost all three games to the Canadiens this year, scoring just four goals. And they were blanked, 3-0, in the teams' final meeting last season.

"I don't expect us to get a lot of chances," said coach Lindy Ruff. "They've done a good job staying inside around Price and not exposing themselves. The only way you get big exposure against a team like that is to get a couple-goal lead where you have to force them out of their game. That hasn't happened."

To spark more offense, Ruff switched the centers on the top two lines in practice Monday. Hecht will likely skate tonight between Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville while Tim Connolly will go between Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford. Ruff first put Hecht with Vanek and Pominville for some shifts in the third period of Saturday's 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders.

"I've got a lot of history playing with [Pominville]," Hecht said. "We've played well in the past together and Van [Vanek] is a former 40-goal scorer who can put the puck in the net. You'd like to think we can do some damage."

Hecht has points in seven of his last 10 games and nine of his last 13. Connolly, meanwhile, has just one goal in his last 11.

"I thought Jochen [with Vanek and Pominville] played pretty well in the third period in the island," Ruff said. "And maybe just a little different look for Tim will help."

Ruff worked the Sabres hard Monday, going for over an hour in his only real chance for a prolonged workout all week. That's because there are also games Thursday at Boston and a home-and-home with the Islanders on Friday and Sunday.

Especially as practice ended, Ruff seemed pleased. Early on, he was getting a little flustered.

"How many times in the last two games have we given the puck away?" he railed at one point. Observers resisted the urge to stand up and answer "dozens," although that would about tell the story. Especially when it comes to the second-period collapse on Long Island, when Buffalo gave up four goals in less than eight minutes.

"We gave up too many chances in the second period and got embarrassed," Hecht said. "Then we came out and played hard again but it's tough when you're down to come back. It's puck possession, playing the system and playing smart. We had breakdowns. We had a 2-on-0 against us, something you can't allow. Those are breakdowns that teams on top of their game don't allow to happen."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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