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SABRES 'D' SUFFERS FROM INJURY BUG

Depleted, devalued and decayed. That's what "D" stands for to the Buffalo Sabres lately.

Coach Lindy Ruff, however, insists his team won't be demoralized by the recent spate of maladies that have befallen his defense.

"It impacts us, but every team's got to play through injuries," Ruff said.

The Sabres, still healing from Friday's melee with the Montreal Canadiens, will be missing two defensive studs when they host the Phoenix Coyotes tonight in HSBC Arena (7; Empire; Radio 107.7).

Rhett Warrener, with a partially torn groin, and Dmitri Kalinin, with a broken thumb, will both miss four to six weeks. Kalinin was scheduled to have surgery to have a pin implanted in his thumb today.

"It's hit us pretty good here," Ruff said this morning. "Knock on wood, we've been a very healthy club in the four-plus years I've been here but this will test our depth."

Checking forward Vaclav Varada is eligible to play after serving a one-game suspension, and will play despite a swollen knee. He was still limping from Doug Gilmour's knee-on-knee hit in response to Varada's collision with Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore.

A bit of good news for Sabres fans: Defenseman Richard Smehlik, who missed the past three games with a groin injury, was given the go-ahead to return.

But the loss of Warrener and Kalinin is devastating. The Sabres play 13 games, or nearly 20 percent of their remaining schedule, over the next four weeks.

"Rhett was playing well," Warrener's defensive partner, Jay McKee, said. "He's a big part of this team, a very important part of this team, and he'll definitely be missed. We'll have to make due with what we have."

Warrener has been a rock on the penalty-kill unit. Since he went down the Sabres have allowed three power-play goals, including two in Saturday's 3-1 road loss to the New Jersey Devils -- even though the Sabres allowed only 11 shots all night.

"The penalty killing has hurt us over the last couple games, and that's an area that was probably Rhett's biggest plus to this hockey club," Ruff said.

The most affected player in Warrener's absence will be McKee. The defensemen play much better when they're together. Two seasons ago, McKee was a minus-13 with Warrener out of the lineup and a plus-18 with Warrener healthy.

"It's a little bit of a transition, a little bit of a change, mostly for myself," McKee said. "For a few years we've played together a majority of the games. Now I just have to adjust."

The Sabres will keep Brian Campbell and Rory Fitzpatrik in Buffalo. Campbell was called up from Rochester as a precaution when Kalinin took a puck off his foot Thursday in practice. Fitzpatrick was summoned Saturday.

Both played well in New Jersey.

"I thought our guys that stepped in did a heckuva job," Ruff said. "In Rory's case and Brian's case they kept their games very simple. They both got up the ice and helped join.

"It's important with Warrener (and Kalinin) being out that amount of time that we've got some players that can step in and provide some depth for us."

Buffalo goaltender Martin Biron also will have to gird up for Warrener's absence. Biron is looking to rebound from his worst game of the season, allowing five goals on 27 Montreal shots.

"That's something you have to experience throughout your whole career," Biron said. "There's some goalies that when they have a not-so-good start they come back harder than ever. This was one of (former Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek's) qualities while he was here, and he was known for that. Everybody knew he would shut the door after a bad game.

"I like coming back after a game like that because it's a challenge. You concentrate hard on making a stand for yourself."

To win, the Sabres must receive better production from their forwards.

"Our key offensive players in key offensive situations haven't scored," Ruff said. "Offensively, we have guys pressing. But it's not from lack of work. The fact we gave Jersey basically nothing in the game, it's tough to swallow when you come home with no points."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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