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Sabres playing for keeps With roster unsettled, preseason has meaning

The Buffalo Sabres have been doomed by slow starts for the past few years, stumbling out of the blocks and recovering far too late to reach the playoffs.

That's why Sabres coach Lindy Ruff isn't treating the preseason opener -- at 7:30 tonight against the Washington Capitals in HSBC Arena -- like an exhibition. It will have more meaning than that.

The Sabres have a few conundrums to settle between now and opening night, which is a mere 2 1/2 weeks away. After 18 months without NHL hockey and with a compressed preseason schedule, the Sabres must whittle down their roster at every position while closely monitoring the impact of myriad new rules.

So don't count on seeing young prospects such as Clarke MacArthur, Patrick Kaleta or Dylan Hunter. The Sabres want to concentrate on getting a jump on this season and avoiding their old bugaboo.

"We've got a lot of decisions to make," Ruff said. "Our whole focus is getting off to a good start. I don't want to look back and say, 'Boy, I wish I would've saw that guy play another game.' We need to focus on our team."

Tonight's lineup will be a fusion of veterans already locked into roster spots and some of the Rochester Americans' top players from last season.

Martin Biron will get the first crack in goal, while Ryan Miller is penciled in to start Sunday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Nationwide Arena.

Ruff said he has changed his policy of using more than one goalie per game and will let his starter go the distance each night.

"They've all had a pretty strong camp," Ruff said of Biron, Miller and Mika Noronen. "In the scrimmages they've played extremely well at different times, but preseason is a more valuable time."

Tonight's game -- as will be the case throughout the NHL preseason -- will conclude with a shootout whether or not the score is tied.

Ruff will go with two veteran lines and two prospect lines.

"We haven't played for a couple years, so there's a couple lines I'd like to play together and see if there's still chemistry," Ruff said.

Three of tonight's lines will be Daniel Briere centering Thomas Vanek and J.P. Dumont, Derek Roy between Ales Kotalik and Maxim Afinogenov, and Jiri Novotny between Daniel Paille and Chris Thorburn.

Two of the defensive pairings will be Jay McKee with Toni Lydman and Dmitri Kalinin with Teppo Numminen.

Ruff said Lydman has performed a little behind the curve in terms of conditioning. The Finnish defenseman, acquired from the Calgary Flames for a 2006 third-round draft pick, missed the first three days of camp while awaiting approval for a work visa, something he didn't need while playing in Canada.

"The days off weren't good for him," Ruff said. "We're going to get him ready. We're going to play him into game shape if we have to."

Although winning rehearsal games doesn't guarantee a good regular-season start, tonight's game has the makings of a blowout Buffalo victory. Hockey analysts from Toronto to Las Vegas consider Washington the NHL's weakest team. They lost, 6-0, to Carolina on Friday.

The Capitals finished the 2003-04 season one point out of the basement and have lost many of their best players from that squad. They already have announced that prize rookie Alexander Ovechkin won't make his debut until the Sabres visit MCI Center on Wednesday night. Top free agent acquisition Andrew Cassels still is recovering from a broken facial bone.

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Veteran players will be relieved when Kaleta returns to his junior team.

The hard-charging winger from Angola continued to deliver bone-rattling blows Friday in the final intrasquad scrimmage of camp. Kaleta administered some video game-type hits, the kind where the recipient flies into the air and falls flat on his fanny. Defenseman Henrik Tallinder was one such target, hitting the ice with a bewildered look on his face.

"He's got a lot of guys angry at him, and that's a good thing," Ruff said of Kaleta, who will head back to Peterborough of the Ontario Hockey League next week. "That's the way he's going to have to play.

"His mark is he's a hard hitter and runs over people. He's just been out there doing it, and you have to give him credit."

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Single-game Sabres tickets are on sale as of 9 this morning. Prices are based on four categories in the team's variable pricing plan: gold, silver, bronze and value. Tickets can be purchased at the HSBC Arena box office, by calling (888) 223-6000 or online at www.sabres.com or www.tickets.com.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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