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Already Dominik Hasek has played more minutes (305) than any other National Hockey League goalie. So it's time for him to sit out tonight's game here against the New Jersey Devils (7:30, Empire; Radio 104.1 FM) while Steve Shields gets his first start of the season.

Actually, it's early for Hasek to get some relief. Last season he started the first nine games and 37 of the first 41, and relieved in another. He was in goal for 37 of Buffalo's 40 victories and played in 67 games.

"It's a chance to give Dom a little rest," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Friday, strongly hinting Shields will start tonight.

In another development Friday, there apparently was an exchange of contract proposals between the Sabres and unsigned center Michael Peca.

According to Peca, he rejected a two-year contract offer by the Sabres Friday morning and responded with a counteroffer.

"We came back with a one-year proposal for the same amount of money as Zhitnik," Peca said. Defenseman Alexei Zhitnik signed a one-yar deal Tuesday for a reported $1.5 million.

Peca said he doesn't expect a reply from the Sabres until late in the weekend. The Sabres had no comment on the negotiations.

In addition to giving Hasek some time off, Ruff is also trying to keep Shields in some sort of game shape.

"I think you've got to play him (Shields) in the event that something did happen to Dom," Ruff said. "He's got to get his games. I don't know whether it's going to be one in five or one in four. It's a demanding schedule with a lots of travel this year. There's going to be lots of opportunity for playing Steve."

Shields, who was 4-6 with a 2.74 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage in the playoffs last year, is more than anxious to get a game under his belt.

"I'm happy with the way I'm playing," Shields said. "I think I'm progressing the way I want to. I feel I should get into some games and start playing and get into the groove and help the team win games."

Ruff intends to develop a plan to give work to Shields, but concedes he will be flexible enough to adjust to situations as they develop.

"We're going to need both guys and it's going to be evaluated on how Dom feels, how the team plays, how many shots he's faced and how much travel he's gone through.

"You try to pick a spot (for Shields to play) and you try to evaluate game-by-game. You might have to change your plan. I think it's a thing you have to judge game-to-game but have a plan where you want to put your other goalie in."

And Ruff admits that he will be inclined not to bench Hasek if he gets hot.

"I think that's the case anywhere," he said. "When a goalie gets in a groove you don't want to take him out. I don't see that changing here. If Dom gets where he's feeling really good and he's playing unbelievable, it's going to be a tough decision to take him out."

Part of Shields' maturity is learning how to adjust to irregular playing time.

"It's just part of the job now, to prepare myself to play whenever I get the opportunity. I have to just make sure I'm ready whenever I get the chance," he said.

"All I ask for is a chance to go in there and to play well and earn another chance to play and see how it shakes out as the season goes on."

Last season, after Andrei Trefilov was injured, the Sabres seemed reluctant to call on the inexperienced Shields unless they absolutely had to. He was only 3-8-2 in the regular season despite a 2.97 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage.

The manner in which Shields came through in the Ottawa playoff series and his performance against Philadelphia proved he could stand up to NHL competition.

Getting the call when Hasek injured his knee against Ottawa gave Shields an unexpected opportunity to perform under playoff pressure.

"Obviously, it helped my development just to be in that position," he said. "Now, when I get the chance to play I'm more familiar with what's going to happen and I can just prepare to play and feel like I'm going to go out there and contribute."

Since last season, Shields said he concentrated on brushing up "a few weaknesses." That involved developing better strength and conditioning and some mental aspects of the game, he said.
Winger Matthew Barnaby suffered a possible bruised sternum in a fall during practice at Marine Midland Arena and did not accompany the Sabres to New Jersey. He was scheduled for more evaluation to determine the extent of the injury. . . . Donald Audette did not practice because of a tender groin, but did some off-ice conditioning work and is expected to play tonight.

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