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It's always a delicate situation whenever a coach publicly questions a player's commitment. The player could respond with added determination, or he could wallow in resentment.

So far, Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff appears to be two for two.

Last week, Ruff benched Dmitri Kalinin for two games and wasn't afraid to tell everyone why. Ruff was upset with the young defenseman's lackadaisical play in the Oct. 12 loss to the Detroit Red Wings. Kalinin humbly acknowledged his faults and has since returned with fervor.

A few days later the coach spoke of his disappointment with J.P. Dumont's lack of conditioning. Ruff said the winger arrived at training camp in subpar shape and had yet to catch up to his teammates.

Dumont has answered Ruff's criticism with a pair of impressive games. Although Dumont didn't record a point over the weekend, he again is playing the edgy sort of game opponents dread.

The Sabres hope Dumont's performance continues tonight when they play the San Jose Sharks at HSBC Arena (8, Empire, Radio 107.7). The game will start an hour later than usual to accommodate ESPN2.

"Sometimes the truth hurts a little bit," Ruff said. "I think in the end, you have to play harder. . . . What I stated (about Dumont) was an area of concern with conditioning. There's always questions why certain people aren't playing well. It was an area of concern that, at the end of the day, just becomes a fact.

"J.P. has played a lot harder, had better opportunities. He's been put in some situations where he can have a few more chances, too. He responded very well."

Dumont's only scoring this season was a goal and an assist Oct. 7 against the New York Rangers. Although points have since been elusive, he has started to do many of the little things that make him an valuable NHL forward.

"The last two games I feel really good out there," said Dumont, who admitted he didn't come to camp in acceptable shape. "I feel I got a lot of jump. I just have to play my game, and the last few games I had some good chances to score. The puck didn't want to go in, but I think I'm right there right now, and I just have to keep going like that."

Dumont is at his best when he's agitating. In Saturday's 3-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, he goaded Sheldon Souray into a roughing penalty midway into the third period with the Sabres clinging to a 1-0 lead.

"He's an irritating guy to play against when he's on his game," Ruff said. "That's the one thing you notice when he's going good: Players are whacking at him, he's drawing penalties and he's got an edge."

Dumont agreed: "That's the game I have to play, make sure I forecheck hard and finish my checks and make sure the defense is always going to look for me and create some space for my linemates."

Ruff has been encouraged enough to switch Dumont to his natural position of right wing, thereby breaking up this season's only constant line.

Dumont, a left-handed shot, had been playing left wing on a line with center Tim Connolly and right wing Miroslav Satan. Dumont will now skate with center Curtis Brown and Vaclav Varada, who has been moved to the left wing.

Dumont was far more effective on the right side last season, when he had 23 goals and 28 points.

"I feel comfortable anywhere, but I like to play the right wing," Dumont said. "We have so many guys on this team we can have four good lines, so I'm pretty happy I'm back on the right side. . . . I don't know for how many games, but I know I'll play there (tonight), and I'm real excited.

"There's more things I can do with the puck (at right wing). It's easier for me to take a shot, to make a pass. I've always played on the right side since I'm 16, so I'm used to it. I see more of the ice, and I'm able to create some space, too."

Ruff's line jumbling won't stop there. He mixed several players during the Canadiens' game -- again to make a statement about his displeasure with certain unacceptable efforts.

"It wasn't intended shuffling," Ruff said, "but I didn't like a couple of the early plays some of our players made. It was a big game for us. The message was: If you're going to sleepwalk early in the game, you're not going to play a lot."

At Monday's practice Connolly centered Stu Barnes and Satan, Chris Gratton was between Slava Kozlov and Maxim Afinogenov, and Erik Rasmussen worked with Denis Hamel, Rob Ray and Eric Boulton.

"Our offense has gone a little bit flat," Ruff said. "We're a better offensive team (than that). We can make better plays than we've made."


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