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Sabres' centers off target ; Production at position lacking without Roy

Jochen Hecht's inability to shoot straight took another turn before practice Wednesday in a moment that pretty much summed up his season. The veteran forward rifled a shot over the crossbar and ended up drilling Lindy Ruff on the left knee, hurting his coach with another missed open net.

Ruff hobbled around in pain for a few minutes, took a seat on the bench and had Sabres trainer Tim Macre take a peek before toughing out a light, loose 30-minute workout in HSBC Arena. Even the boss needs to play hurt at this time of year, and an understandably chipper Ruff laughed off the accident afterward.

"It's a lower-body injury," Ruff deadpanned.

Good humor comes with winning, of course, and the Sabres had reasons to smile as they boarded their charter for tonight's matchup against the Boston Bruins. They're feeling good about themselves after an overtime victory over the Montreal Canadiens for their sixth win in nine games, allowing them to pocket 13 of 18 points.

What's no longer a laughing matter is their ineffectiveness at center, which appears to be their weakest position and could be their doom. The gruesome numbers in 159 games combined from the four players who lined up in the middle during practice Wednesday: 17 goals and 58 points, minus-18.

Their combined salary is $11.575 million, which some would argue is a joke.

"We need an increase in production from everybody," center Paul Gaustad said. "The production from some guys has to pick up a bit. Let's be honest, if we reduce the amount of goals scored against, does it have to increase? It works both ways. It's a balance. It's any way you can get a win."

The Sabres haven't struck the balance enough this season, which helps explain why they remained in 11th place Wednesday. They were 18th in scoring and 21st in goals-against average through 45 games. A stiff challenge awaits them tonight against the Bruins, who lead the league with a 2.13 GAA this season and were seventh in goals scored.

Goalie Tim Thomas has won seven of his past 10 starts and hasn't lost in regulation since Dec. 20. Boston did give up six goals in regulation during Buffalo's shootout win Jan. 1, when Drew Stafford had the second of two hat tricks against the Bruins. Stafford has seven goals in three games against Boston, but he'll miss the game with a groin injury.

"You're taking Derek [Roy] out, and you're taking [Stafford] out, and it's a big hole in your offense," Ruff said. "The production has to come from the group underneath whether it's a centerman or a winger. Definitely looking for production. We're looking for more offense, but not at the sake of playing poor defense."

Better play down the middle could make a world of difference. Penguins star Sidney Crosby had 32 goals and 66 points by himself and was plus-20. Lightning pivot Steven Stamkos had 35 goals and 63 points and was plus-10. The Sabres aren't expecting the same from second- and third-line players, but they need more from each of them.

Hecht and Tim Connolly had pooled 13 goals and 36 points, or one more than Roy had before his season ended three weeks ago. They combined for 11 shots and no goals against Montreal and are minus-20 this season. Four of Hecht's seven goals have come in the past nine games, which helps explain how little he accomplished in the first 36. He's making $3.525 million and Connolly $4.5 million.

Gaustad has just four goals in 45 games and eight over his past 82 contests. Rob Niedermayer's next goal for the Sabres will be his first. He nearly scored Tuesday night but was stopped when Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban threw himself in front of a shot from close range. He has no goals in 36 games this season.

You could say he's hurting.

"It's frustrating for sure," Niedermayer said. "You want to contribute to the team offensively for sure, and it's been frustrating. You have to keep going at it. You can't get down or be hesitant out there. It's only going to make matters worse. I've been in slumps before, and guys just tell you to keep shooting. That's what I'm trying to do."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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