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The Buffalo Sabres start a critical stretch tonight with two familiar faces, Wayne Primeau and Vaclav Varada, on the sidelines indefinitely and one new face, forward Vladimir Tsyplakov, ready to make his Buffalo debut.

The Sabres, mired in 11th place in the Eastern Conference standing and in the midst of a three-game losing streak, will host the Tampa Bay Lightning in Marine Midland Arena tonight (7:05, Empire, 104.1 FM). The Sabres will play five games (four at home) before the NHL All-Star Game on Feb. 6 in Toronto.

The loss of Primeau and Varada prompted the Sabres to acquire Tsyplakov from the Los Angeles Kings on Monday for an eighth-round draft choice in 2000. Tsyplakov, a left wing, is expected to play tonight.

The news about Primeau continues to get worse. He hurt his leg and hip in a Jan. 1 collision with Toronto's Kris King, played three ineffective games, and now has missed six contests. Coach Lindy Ruff said Primeau could be looking at a season-ending injury.

"After about a week, when they started mentioning other things -- it could affect a muscle in his hip -- all of a sudden it looked like it wasn't going to be just a couple of days of rest (to recover). (But) It's serious.

Ruff said Primeau will see a specialist in Tennessee early this week.

Varada is still on the sidelines with a punctured eardrum suffered during last week's game against the Kings in Los Angeles. He did not practice Monday and is out indefinitely.

The Rochester Americans, Buffalo's American Hockey League affiliate, are suffering from injury problems of their own. So the Sabres went outside the organization for help.

Tsyplakov, 30, had six goals and seven assists in 29 games for the Kings. Tsyplakov (sih-plah-KAHF) had 18 goals and 34 assists during the 1997-98 season and was 11-12-23 last season. He is 6-foot-1, 190 pounds and hails from Moscow.

"I know a little bit about him," Ruff said. "He's a skill player. He's got good hands, good hockey sense. Speedwise, he's an average skater. With all the trades L.A. has made -- (Bryan) Smolinski, (Zigmund) Palffy -- he's fallen out of the top three lines and out of the lineup. Maybe we can take a look at him on the power play. We'll get him in here and evaluate him."

Tsyplakov will become a popular player in Buffalo if he can provide a jump start to a Sabre offense that has become nearly dormant again. Buffalo has scored 11 goals in its last six games -- five of them in a shutout victory in Anaheim last week. The Sabres are 1-4-1 during the stretch.

"Our problem is, we can't score," Alexei Zhitnik said. "One goal a game, you aren't going to win many. You need two or three to have a chance to win most games."

The Lightning has won once in its last 17 games but can't be looked upon as an automatic cure to Buffalo's problems. This will be the Sabres' first game since a rigorous four-game road trip.

"You always put some thought into that," Ruff said. "We had a demanding travel session with four games in six nights. . . . We can't use that as an excuse. We have to suck it up and play our best game."

The Sabres will need to pass three teams over the final 34 games to qualify for a postseason berth. One of those teams, the Carolina Hurricanes, added talented center Rod Brind'Amour in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday. Buffalo is six points behind eighth-place Boston."There's no secret as to where we stand now, and we have to work our way out of it," Ruff said. "We're at red alert right now."

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