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WITH PECA OUT, EX FOURTH-LINE CENTER ENJOYS 'PRIMO' ICE TIME

Buffalo Sabres center Wayne Primeau is on the short list of people who are benefiting from the contract problems of teammate Michael Peca.

With Peca sitting home as negotiations drag on, Primeau's ice time has gone up dramatically. He has been a regular in the team's first two games, and he'll see plenty of action in tonight's contest with the Tampa Bay Lightning (7, Empire, Radio 104.1.)

"I think any time you have a situation like that (with Peca), it's a chance for someone to step forward," associate coach Don Lever said. "He (Primeau) is getting a bigger role."

"All the time you go out there and work hard, and hopefully the coaches take notice," Primeau said. "If they are happy, they'll keep putting you out."

During the 1996-97 season -- Primeau's first as a pro -- he played in Buffalo for the second half of the campaign after an injury to Anatoli Semenov. Primeau centered the fourth line most of the time. While the Sabres used that group more than some other teams, Primeau wasn't exactly overworked.

This season, as the Sabres' coaching staff tries to figure out who fits where, the 21-year-old Primeau has been paired with Randy Burridge and Rob Ray. He also has been used in penalty-killing and other speciality situations. So far, the extra work agrees with him.

"I don't feel as sluggish," he said. "Sometimes when you don't get ice time, you sit on the bench, your legs get heavy and your feet get sore. You have to be in that situation to know what it's like."

As a result, Primeau looks like he's lost weight and is skating faster than he was last season. That's something of an illusion, since he's still carrying about 200 pounds. But he's thinking less and reacting more while he's on the ice, and that makes him appear quicker.

"I think he's shown improvement every step of the way," Lever said. "At the end of last year, he really seemed to gain some confidence; he seems to fight with that quite a bit. He's skating very well. It's a process for a bigger man like he is. It takes a little more time. But we're really pleased with his progress."

It was something of a surprise when the coaching staff decided to use Primeau on the second penalty-killing unit. Buffalo has several players who have killed penalties over the years -- Derek Plante, Dixon Ward, Brian Holzinger and Jason Dawe. Peca was a big part of that unit last season, and so short-handed situations give Primeau another chance to fill in for Peca.

"It's going to take some learning," Primeau said. "I know I'm going to make some mistakes, and they know that. When I do, they are always there to show me what I have to work on and what I have to do. It's been good. I've been killing penalties with Randy Burridge, and he's a good leader."

Two games into the season, Primeau has been very good at winning face-offs. The Sabres have had him take even-strength draws in key situations.

"He's our best faceoff guy," Lever said. "He's a big guy. He's a mobile guy with a lot of reach."

Primeau added, "It's one of my strengths. My father always stressed that when we were kids for myself and my brother (Keith, who plays for the Carolina Hurricanes). It creates opportunities both ways, offensively and defensively. If you win a faceoff, you gain control of the puck."

Peca probably won't stay unsigned for a long period of time -- although general manager Darcy Regier reported no news on negotiations with Peca and Alexei Zhitnik -- but that doesn't necessarily mean that Primeau will go back to his occasional playing status of last season when Peca returns. There's always a chance that the play of Primeau and fellow young, big center Erik Rasmussen will force the Sabres to keep playing them somewhere.

"When Michael gets back, a decision has to be made," Lever said. "We may get bigger on the wings with one of those two guys."

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