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HASEK STEADY IN RETURN; VARADA AGREES TO CONTRACT

The Sabres are slowly moving toward the bottom of their list of things to do before the regular season. Coach Lindy Ruff received his contract extension about two weeks ago. Wayne Primeau was re-signed. Stu Barnes finalized his deal two days ago.

More good news came for the Sabres on Friday when winger Vaclav Varada agreed on a two-year contract plus an option in a package worth $2.3 million. If that wasn't enough, the Sabres had their most important piece back where he belongs -- in the net.

Dominik Hasek looked solid in two periods of work in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals before about 12,000 fans in Marine Midland Arena. He made 15 saves, allowing a slap shot from Glen Metropolit through a screen in the first period. Martin Biron made 18 saves in relief of Hasek before Andrei Nikolishin scored off a rebound 2:05 into OT.

"It was a good test," Hasek said. "Of course, I felt a little bit rusty in the beginning, but it's the first game of the season. I'm still a little behind."

It was Hasek's first game since the early hours of June 20, when Brett Hull was awarded the most controversial goal in Sabres' history to end the Stanley Cup finals. Hasek has been over the goal for a while.

His bigger problem was a strained groin that plagued him from February to June and a hernia that required offseason surgery. He practiced for the last two weeks but did not appear in any of the Sabres' four previous preseason games.

"Most importantly, I felt well physically and didn't have any problems," Hasek said. "I'll play one more game and get ready for the season."

Rob Ray scored for the Sabres, who were playing in their only home exhibition game this season. Buffalo will start defending its Eastern Conference title next Saturday in Detroit.

The Dominator should be ready. He has experienced no problems since undergoing surgery, and his competitive spirit is working its way back into practice. What he needs more than anything is more action before the season opener.

"I feel very good in the practices, and everything looks OK," Hasek said. "I need five, maybe 10 more practices. After an hour of practice, I feel more tired than I used to feel. I'm not in the best shape yet."

Varada also has some work in the week ahead. He's expected to report to the Sabres either Monday or Tuesday to sign the deal and return to the lineup. His average salary of about $767,000 is a significant increase from the $325,000 he made last season. He had seven goals and 24 assists last season and was the Sabres' best checking forward.

The Sabres from the start of negotiations were pushing for a three-year deal. Varada was looking for more money, but instead signed a deal that includes several obtainable bonuses. He had been playing with HC Vitkovice in an elite Czech league for the last few weeks and should be in good shape physically.

"I couldn't stand staying here any more," Varada said from his home in the Czech Republic. "I was kind of pushing my agent to sign. I'm happy to go and play again. I can't wait to see the guys."

The Sabres still have four unsigned free agents -- winger Miroslav Satan, center Curtis Brown and defense partners Jay McKee and Rhett Warrener. Satan has essentially taken over talks from his agent, Rich Winter, although the two sides are still well apart.

Brown is seeking a multiyear deal in the $1 million per season range. Talks have been extremely slow with McKee, who is seeking a deal starting at about $1.3 million. Warrener, coming off a broken ankle in the Cup finals last season, wants a considerable boost from the $435,000 he earned last season.

"Discussions continue with everybody," Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to move guys in on a daily basis or every couple days. That would be nice."

The Sabres are unlikely to make any roster moves during the waiver draft Monday. The Sabres exposed six players: forwards Randy Cunneyworth, Craig Fisher, Scott Nichol and Chris Taylor and defensemen Doug Houda and Mike Hurlbut.

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