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TIME FOR CAMPBELL TO MAKE HIS CASE

The Buffalo Sabres are using a new 4-6 defense.

Four-to-six weeks, that is.

The Sabres' blue line is reeling from injuries to critical players who will be absent that long. Rhett Warrener is out with a partially torn groin, while Dmitri Kalinin had a pin surgically implanted in his broken left thumb Tuesday.

The injuries, however, provide a legitimate chance for Brian Campbell to make a name for himself at the NHL level. Campbell and Rory Fitzpatrick were recalled from Rochester, and both should be here for a while.

"It's an opportunity for Brian to show what he can do," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "He knows that both Warrener and Kalinin are out now for at least a month. So it's not a situation where you come in here and try to get it done on a one- or two-game basis. . . . We've gotta look for him to play and be ready to play."

Campbell, a sixth-round draft pick in 1997, was called up five times last season, but he played in only eight of the 19 games he was with Buffalo.

"It's a lot easier when (you know) you're playing a few games in a row," said Campbell, who played in his second straight game in Tuesday night's 3-2 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes in HSBC Arena. "Last year you play one game, you get sent down for two months, you get adjusted and then you get called back up.

"It was a maturing process. I feel ready to take the next step, so it's definitely good timing for me. Hopefully I can prove myself right."

Campbell drew positive reviews from Sabres management during training camp, but his performance slipped once preseason games started and he failed to make Buffalo's opening night roster.

"Probably out of desperation he tried to do too much," Ruff said. "He started playing one-on-one hockey in his own end. He tried to beat players. In the game against New Jersey (Saturday night) he tried to make the easy play, and that made for an easy night for him."

The injuries create playing time for young and old alike. Now James Patrick will be dressing regularly.

Before the injuries depleted the Sabres' depth, Ruff shuffled defensemen in and out of the lineup. He could afford to send messages to Kalinin and Jason Woolley by making them healthy scratches.

The fact Ruff wasn't entirely satisfied with all seven of his defensemen in the early stages of the season makes Campbell's presence all the more intriguing. If Campbell plays solidly enough he might not be the one packing when Warrener and Kalinin come back.

"What Brian can do is make my decision even tougher," Ruff said. "If he plays extremely well and the team is winning and he's one of the big reasons why, you don't take a player out.

"That's the only approach he can have: Make this decision tough on me. I expect that from him. I expect him to play real well and prove a point that he wants to stick here."

Buffalo defenseman Richard Smehlik, out the past three games with a groin injury, returned Tuesday.

Winger Vaclav Varada came back from his one-game suspension and played despite soreness in his knee stemming from his run-in with Montreal's Doug Gilmour.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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