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NEDVED MAKES RANGERS DEBUT AFTER DEAL WITH PENGUINS

Petr Nedved was a little rusty in his first game since the 1996-97 season, but he was happy to be back in the NHL after being acquired by the New York Rangers.

Nedved, Chris Tamer and Sean Pronger joined the Rangers in time for the Buffalo Sabres' 4-2 victory Wednesday night after being traded earlier by the Pittsburgh Penguins in a five-player deal.

"I wanted to come back to New York," said Nedved, who played for the Rangers in 1995.

"I thought the Rangers had the most interest," Nedved said. "It took a little time, but I'm happy the deal is finally done."

Nedved, involved in a bitter contract dispute with the Penguins that kept him out all last season and part of this year, signed a three-year contract worth a reported $10.5 million with the Rangers.

New York sent forwards Harry York and Alexei Kovalev to Pittsburgh. Sources told The News that the deal also included the Rangers sending between $4 million and $5 million to the financially troubled Penguins.

Nedved spent the first two months this season with Las Vegas in the International Hockey League. He had eight goals and 10 assists in 13 games with the Thunder. He had one assist but was a minus-2 against the Sabres. He was on the ice for all three of Dixon Ward's goals.

"My timing's a little bit off," he said. "It will take a couple games to adjust to that. I'm in good condition. Obviously, Vegas isn't the same level, but I played a lot."

Tamer, a defenseman, had no points in 11 games this season with Pittsburgh.

Pronger played two games with the Penguins this season and had two assists but was scratched against the Sabres.

Former Sabres general manager John Muckler made his first visit to Marine Midland Arena on Wednesday since taking over last season as the Rangers' coach.

Muckler, who still keeps a home in East Amherst, had the team stay at the Niagara-Buffalo Marriott near the University at Buffalo. He had an 0-1-1 record against Buffalo since replacing Colin Campbell last season. Both games were in New York.

"I like the people here. I like the community. This is probably where I'll end up staying," Muckler said. "I have no hard feelings about coming back to Buffalo."

Muckler hasn't changed much since leaving. Asked about the Nedved deal, he had no comment. Asked about Dominik Hasek's dominance of the Rangers, he had no comment. He finally came through when asked about his wife, Audrey.

"My wife's very fine," Muckler said with a laugh.

The NHL implemented new rules Wednesday concerning intermissions in a move designed to improve the condition of the ice between periods.

Players are not allowed to leave their dressing rooms until there is one minute left before the start of the period. Only the players starting the period are allowed on the ice.

The idea is to allow the ice to freeze after the Zamboni clears the surface between periods. It should help faster teams like the Sabres, who have been inhibited by slower surfaces toward the end of the games.

Sabres left wing Paul Kruse sat out for the sixth time in seven games with an injured hip flexor but could be ready this weekend against Florida and Tampa Bay.

Kruse has been through limited skating drills since aggravating the injury during a fight on his first shift against the Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 14. Kruse has missed eight of the Sabres' 31 games since he was acquired by Buffalo in a trade that sent Jason Dawe to the New York Islanders late last season.

The other Buffalo scratches were defensemen Richard Smehlik (bruised thigh) and Mike Hurlbut. Smehlik hopes to be in the lineup Saturday against Florida. Hurlbut was promoted from Rochester after Smehlik was injured.

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