Playoff time is only four weeks away, but Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff still is experimenting with line combinations looking for more consistent offensive production.
The latest look, auditioned on Buffalo's successful 3-1 road trip, will get another test tonight when the Sabres face the Los Angeles Kings at Marine Midland Arena (7, Empire, Radio 104.1 FM).
The main change involved left wing Geoff Sanderson. Since Sanderson was obtained in an early February trade with Vancouver, the Sabres had tried to line him up with center Brian Holzinger and right wing Donald Audette when possible.
Now, apparently, that's not the answer.
Sanderson was moved to a line with Derek Plante and Matthew Barnaby for the last three games of the trip, with Vaclav Varada replacing him on the Holzinger line.
Trading away right wing Jason Dawe and obtaining left wing Paul Kruse also altered the look of two other forward units. Miroslav Satan moved into Dawe's spot with Michael Peca and Dixon Ward, and Kruse was slotted on the fourth line with center Wayne Primeau and Rob Ray.
"I like the makeup now," Ruff said Tuesday after the team practiced at Marine Midland Arena for the first time in 10 days. "We've got a fourth line (Kruse-Primeau-Ray) that can go out and crash and bang and is an intimidating force. We've got one line (Ward-Peca-Satan) that can check any line and we've got a couple of lines (Sanderson-Plante-Barnaby and Varada-Holzinger-Audette) that supposedly will be able to score for us. I think the makeup now is a lot better than it was a week ago."
That still leaves winger Michal Grosek and versatile Curtis Brown as extra pieces to the puzzle.
The thinking was that a speed line of Sanderson-Holzinger-Audette would keep opposing defenses back on their heels and frustrate over-aggressive forechecking because of the breakout potential.
It didn't exactly work that way. Sanderson has only three goals in 17 games with Buffalo.
"We changed on the road trip because the Holzinger-Audette-Sanderson line just wasn't clicking," Ruff said.
The Sabres' brass now believes Sanderson will fit better with Plante and Barnaby and will get more opportunities to shoot the puck.
"The feeling there was Matthew's been pretty good in the playmaking department," Ruff said. "With Derek (Plante) and Matthew on the same line, they look to get it to Geoff Sanderson, and Geoff has had some great opportunities in the last few games."
"It's working out pretty good," is Sanderson's early assessment. "Barnaby is gritty on the right side and makes a lot of plays. Plante can shoot and skate."
One line combo could be thrown off tonight if the NHL extends its suspension of Peca for his hit on Vancouver defenseman Mattias Ohlund last Thursday night in Vancouver. Peca already has served a two-game suspension, with Brown skating in his place.
Peca's hearing was put off until today so that senior vice president and director of hockey operations Brian Burke, who metes out discipline for the NHL, could view additional videotape of the incident provided by the Sabres. The Sabres expect a ruling by Burke before game time.
Seven of Buffalo's last 10 regular-season games are at home, but that is not necessarily good news. The Sabres are only 5-3-5 in their last 13 games at the arena as opposed to their 9-2-2 mark in their last 13 away from home.
"We have to bear down and be a solid home-ice team these last seven games," Sanderson said. "We have to play like we're on the road."
Coach Larry Robinson's Los Angeles team, in the midst of a six-game road trip, looks like it is headed for a second-place finish behind Colorado in the Pacific Division and a fifth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. That would most likely pit the Kings against St. Louis in the first round.
The Kings have missed the playoffs the last four seasons, after going to the finals in 1993. They are perhaps the most improved team in the league this season. At 34-27-11, L.A. already has won six more games than all last season (28-43-11).
One reason for the improvement is the availability of defenseman Rob Blake, who has 22 goals and 46 points playing in all 72 of the Kings' games. He missed 24 games in 1995, 76 games in 1996 and 20 games last season because of a groin injury and reconstructive knee surgery.
"Rob's really come into his own," said Kings defenseman Garry Galley, who was a Sabre last season. "He's having a Norris Trophy-type year. I haven't seen anyone (a defenseman) in the league that does what he does on a consistent basis and scores like he does."