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Sabres notebook / Vanek will give it the old college try tonight

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Since the Buffalo Sabres won't play in Austria any time soon, tonight's game against the Minnesota Wild in the Xcel Energy Center will suffice as Thomas Vanek's homecoming.

"I had this marked at the start of the year," said the former University of Minnesota star. "It's exciting. You're going to be a little more pumped up because you want to play good in front of your buddies and put on a show for them."

Vanek established his reputation as a prolific goal scorer in the Twin Cities. The Xcel Energy Center is the site for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs, where Vanek always seemed scintillating for the Gophers.

He hasn't played to such a steadily sublime level in a Sabres uniform yet, but maybe a vintage Minnesota performance can kick start the rookie winger.

"Obviously, I expected a little bit more out of myself," Vanek said. "It's a big transition from the AHL to the NHL, and I think I'm still getting used to it."

Through 29 games, Vanek is fourth in scoring for Buffalo and sixth among NHL rookies before Saturday's games with five goals and 14 assists. He's on pace to finish with 14 goals and 40 assists.

"I'm sitting here with five goals," Vanek said. "By my standards I feel I should be a lot higher."

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff is certain Vanek will increase his rate of offensive production.

"He'll score more," Ruff said. "His numbers are good, but I think he's a better player than that, though."

Vanek didn't register his first NHL goal until the 15th game. He had one goal in 12 games before he converted a penalty shot in Thursday's overtime victory over the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

But Ruff sees signs Vanek's game is coming together. He's skating on a potent line with center Derek Roy and right wing Jason Pominville. Those three have combined for five goals and nine assists in the last six games.

"He had a two- or three-week stretch where his game really fell off," Ruff said. "He's picked his game up again. That line has been a valuable piece for us. His game is climbing back in the right direction."

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Co-captain Daniel Briere is optimistic he'll be able to return to action tonight. Briere was Buffalo's leading scorer when he was sidelined with an abdominal injury eight games ago.

"The last two days it's been pretty good," said Briere, who has been practicing for about a week. "I really believe I'll be fine to play."

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The Sabres were happy to see J.P. Dumont shuffling around the dressing room Saturday. The winger was in good spirits after undergoing surgery Thursday to repair a sports hernia. He won't be able to play again until early March at the soonest.

"He's walking like he's 75," Ruff said. "He says it only hurts when he moves."

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Just in time for the holidays, the Sabres have released a CD compilation of Rick Jeanneret's most entertaining calls.

"Roll the Highlight Film" is a treasure trove of memories from the legendary play-by-play voice, featuring "May Day," "La-La-La-Fontaine" and "the shot heard 'round the hockey world." The collection includes famous goals, fights and historic moments.

Proceeds from the sale of the $10 discs will benefit the Buffalo Sabres Foundation. They can be purchased at the HSBC Arena box office, Spot Coffee and select Subway locations.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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