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ZHITNIK'S BROKEN FOOT ACCENTUATES THIN BLUE LINE

Alexei Zhitnik is still an All-Star defenseman on his left side.

But his right side is All-Wrong.

The Buffalo Sabres' blue-line workhorse will be out at least two weeks with a broken right foot. Zhitnik was already nursing right groin and right knee injuries when he was felled by a shot in the third period of Friday's victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

"This is a really unhappy day," said Zhitnik, wearing a cast with a soft covering.

"I felt something wasn't right. Usually, when it's bruised, couple days it gets better. In my situation (the swelling) was the same for three straight days."

Zhitnik's absence leaves a gaping void on the Sabres' already-ragged blue line heading into tonight's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in HSBC Arena. He's the team's leader in average ice time at 24:08 a game.

"We'll have to spread the ice time around," Ruff said. "I think you'll see more of a balanced three units that are probably going to play somewhere around 20 minutes each."

Also banged up on defense are Brian Campbell, Dmitri Kalinin and Henrik Tallinder.

Campbell is playing with a chipped bone in his foot. He left Tuesday's practice early for the second straight day, but he's expected to play tonight.

"He wanted to skate a little bit," Ruff said. "He could have stayed the whole practice, but we didn't want to push it to the point where it got too sore and would hurt him for (tonight)."

Kalinin and Tallinder both have shoulder injuries. Kalinin should play tonight with a harness, while Tallinder will be out at least until the weekend.

The Sabres recalled defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick from Rochester on Monday. He could be inserted on the power play if Kalinin can't handle the job.

"If Dmitri's shoulder isn't well enough to shoot the puck the way we need him to shoot the puck, it's no use trying to utilize him in that position," Ruff said. "So we'll use Rory."
Ruff has mixed his lines in hopes of inducing more offense from his skill players. The coach has broken up the top line of captain Stu Barnes between left wing Jochen Hecht and right wing Miroslav Satan.

"We've had two or three games now of the Barnes-Hecht-Satan unit generating virtually nothing five-on-five," Ruff said. "We can't have that. Our skill guys have to be the guys who win us games, and there was no production there. It didn't seem like there was a lot of chemistry."

Barnes skated with Hecht and right wing Vaclav Varada on Tuesday. Satan moved to a line with center Curtis Brown and left wing Taylor Pyatt. Center Adam Mair worked with wingers Ales Kotalik, Eric Boulton and Rob Ray.

The line of leading scorer Chris Gratton between wingers J.P. Dumont and Tim Connolly remained.

"The Gratton line is having fun playing together," Ruff said. "I think they've been our best line."
The Lightning leads the Southeast Division with a 12-6-2-1 record, one season after finishing 13th in the Eastern Conference at 27-40-11-4.

Ruff claimed the main reason for the turnaround has been the presence of goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. The Bulin Wall's stats -- 2.46 goals-against average and .909 save percentage -- are off from last season. But he's finally getting some offensive support.

"He's brought a lot of confidence to that club," Ruff said.
More than 8,000 tickets remain for tonight's game. Almost 6,000 are available for Friday's contest against Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Sabres and HSBC Bank are offering a ticket package known as the HSBC Sabres Six Pack. The deal provides almost a 20 percent discount off box office prices. The six games cost $294 in the 100 Level and $168 in the 300 Level.

Five games in the package are Jan. 21 Pittsburgh, Feb. 7 Vancouver, Feb. 19 Montreal, March 18 Philadelphia and April 2 Atlanta. The sixth game is a choice, Jan. 24 or March 6 against Toronto.
e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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