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Buffalo Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek said he only would be out several days after he hurt his rotator cuff last week. Doctors said he wouldn't return for at least a couple of weeks.

Hasek was right; the doctors were wrong. He will be the starting goaltender for the Sabres when they meet the Florida Panthers tonight in Memorial Auditorium (7:30, Empire, Radio 550).

Sabres coach John Muckler sent Hasek through a variety of drills during Thursday's workout at Sabreland in Wheatfield. When it was over, the coach pronounced his goaltender fit for game action.

"Dominik had a good practice, he was pain-free, and he'll be playing (tonight)," Muckler said.

Hasek suffered the injury in Florida on Mar. 14, and it wasn't any better two days later at home against the New York Islanders. The recovery time left the goalie feeling a bit winded after Thursday's practice.

"I haven't been on the ice for a week. I've just been riding the bike," he said. "It was a very good practice. I took lots of shots, and I hope tomorrow I feel much better."

With Hasek ready to go, the Sabres assigned backup goalie Markus Ketterer to Rochester.

As expected, Muckler was thrilled to see his No. 1 goaltender back in game condition.

"It certainly will give our team a boost," he said. "We can't sit back now that Dominik is back in the lineup and let him do the whole thing. We know Dominik gives us a chance to win, and that's all we ask. He's really played well. He has missed some games; hopefully he's going to be sharp."

Now that Hasek's "vacation" is over, Muckler makes it clear that Hasek will be seeing plenty of action the rest of the way.

"Dominik's already had his rest; he's not getting any more," Muckler said with a grin. "We're here to win hockey games. Dominik will play every game from now until the end of the season if he wants to. If he gets tired, we'll back off and put Robb Stauber in there."

Game No. 1 in that streak will be against a Florida squad that doesn't know expansion teams are supposed to roll over and play dead in their first few years of existence. The Panthers had a .494 winning percentage (33-34-17) in their first season of play, an NHL-best for expansion teams.

Their 12-15-3 record this season puts them in the mix of teams fighting for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.

"Roger Neilson is a heck of a coach at getting the most out of his players," winger Jason Dawe said.

Neilson has been a top defensive coach for years, and his players know the only way they can win is to smother the opposition's offense, then counter-attack. They do it well, and it makes playing the Panthers about as much fun as having a tooth drilled.

"We can't throw the puck away," defenseman Doug Houda said. "They clog up the middle. We have to be patient, wait it out and score on our opportunities, because we're not going to get a lot of them."

The Sabres can't afford to let tonight's game get away. Buffalo has lost three straight, and games with powerful Philadelphia (Sunday) and Quebec (Tuesday) loom. A long losing streak can cripple any team's playoff hopes in the Eastern Conference.

"In our last game against Pittsburgh, we played a pretty strong game except for that last goal," Dawe said. "It was obviously a big turnaround from the two previous games. Hopefully we can build off that game."

Houda added, "We can't afford to lose any more games. We've got to come in ready to play. It's a must-win for us. We've got to win."
There has been plenty of talk about the Sabres' compressed schedule this season, but it overlooks one fact. The original schedule for the 1994-95 season had the Sabres playing 28 games during the months of February and March combined. Under the "new" schedule, the Sabres will play 25 games in that same span.

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