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HASEK TO PRACTICE, MAY PLAY FRIDAY

Injured goaltender Dominik Hasek received medical clearance to practice with the Buffalo Sabres today and could return to the lineup Friday night against the Florida Panthers in the Aud.

Originally, Hasek was expected to miss two weeks. So far he's been out eight days, missing three games.

"If he holds up through practice he can play on Friday night," Sabres coach John Muckler said Wednesday after the team's practice at Sabreland.

Muckler said he doubted that center Dale Hawerchuk, out with a pulled groin muscle, would play this weekend.

Hasek, who led the NHL last season with a 1.95 goals-against average, was doing even better this year until he left the lineup on March 16 after the first period of the Sabres' 6-3 victory over the New York Islanders with a strained left rotator cuff.

The 30-year-old Hasek has been the goaltender of record in nine of Buffalo's 11 victories. His 1.93 goals-against average does not lead the NHL -- Jim Carey of Washington ranks first at 1.33 -- but it's the best among goalies who have appeared in at least half their team's games.

Robb Stauber, acquired from the Los Angeles Kings last month, took over for Hasek and received credit for the victory against the Islanders. Stauber has been in goal for three straight defeats since, two of them 3-2 losses to Ottawa and Pittsburgh. In the other, he allowed six goals.

Stauber turned in a strong effort in Tuesday night's loss to the Penguins, a game in which Muckler believes his team outplayed the visitors.

"The team worked hard," Muckler said. "We made mistakes and we lost the game. There's no question about that. . . . You can't play the way we played against Pittsburgh and make those mistakes and expect to win, but we did play well. Maybe we didn't finish our chances but we did create chances for ourselves. We had as much of (an advantage) in the play if not more than Pittsburgh, but we had the bad mistakes and that cost the game."

The possibility of Hasek returning for the weekend games against Florida here and at Philadelphia Sunday was good news. The Sabres also would welcome more scoring from slumping wingers Yuri Khmylev and Jason Dawe.

Muckler said he is as mystified as anybody else by Khmylev, who has only two goals in 27 games. The 30-year-old Russian-born left winger scored 20 and 27 goals the last two seasons.

"Why isn't Khmylev scoring? I don't know. He was one of the players that we counted on. He was one of the better players on our club last year. He's failed to produce the same offense he did last year. Why? I have no idea.

"We hope once Dale comes back that he's going to create more chances for his wingers. Khmylev may feel more comfortable playing with Dale. I don't know if that's the answer or not, but you hope it's going to be."

Dawe, who turns 22 in May, scored six goals in 32 games for Buffalo last season after scoring 22 in 48 games at Rochester, but he has only two goals and an assist in 25 games this season and his playing time has decreased lately.

"Jason's struggling," Muckler admitted. "He's working hard, but he is struggling offensively. He is now playing on the fourth line. We felt at the start of the year that he would be at least our third-line right winger. We haven't been able to have any set lines because of the amount of injuries that we have. Maybe that's hindered him a little bit. We just hope that he can work himself out of it. He has the talent to play in the National Hockey League. He has the willingness to play. He's aggressive but he seems to get tight when he gets the opportunity to score."

Bob Sweeney has just a goal and an assist in 24 games, but Muckler said there are extenuating circumstances.

"In all fairness to Bobby Sweeney, he's playing hurt," Muckler said. "He has a torn muscle in his shoulder that he is able to play with. . . . "He's playing a role on our hockey club right now. He's killing penalties for us and doing a very good job of that and he's playing on the fourth line. I can't criticize Bobby at this point."

Muckler said the injury has weakened Sweeney's shoulder and hampered his shooting. The veteran forward is facing the prospect of postseason surgery.

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