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Sabres hankering for hockey

Not even after the lockout erased a full NHL campaign -- making it 16 bleak months between games -- was Daniel Briere this jacked about playing hockey.

The Buffalo Sabres co-captain would like nothing more than to fast-forward through the next few days and get back to business. Enough with the Olympics and the medals and the Closing Ceremonies and the time off.

Briere is tired of waiting, and he's not the only Sabre who feels that way.

"I'm more excited than I was at the beginning of the season and after the lockout," Briere said. "We're going down the stretch. There's only a month and a half left in the regular season, and we're two points away from Ottawa. Nobody in the world thought we could be even close to them."

The Sabres will resume their remarkable season Wednesday night, when the Atlanta Thrashers visit HSBC Arena.

Just seven weeks and 26 games are left until the playoffs, and although the Sabres appear comfortably on their way to their first berth since 2001, much can change, including their roster, before the brackets are finalized.

The Sabres are fourth in the Eastern Conference at 36-15 with five overtime or shootout losses.

But their remaining opponents have a .574 winning percentage, making the NHL's sixth-toughest post-Olympic schedule.

Sixteen of their remaining games are against Northeast Division rivals, and all are in the mix. The Ottawa Senators are in second place, two points ahead of the Sabres. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins are within two points of the eighth-place Montreal Canadiens.

"It's better than just a good start, but we still haven't won anything," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said. "We still haven't made the playoffs, so the work continues when we get back. We need to keep things going, but we also need to get better."

Buffalo can get better in two big ways: good health and trades.

Several crucial components are on the verge of returning from injuries.

Briere, out since Dec. 16 because of abdominal muscle tears, and versatile forward Jochen Hecht, knocked out of the Olympics with a sprained knee, are good to go. Tim Connolly might need another week before he's over his knee injury. Defenseman Dmitri Kalinin's separated shoulder is almost fully healed.

"New guys coming back to the lineup will add new excitement to this team," Briere said.

The Sabres also could bolster their roster with a swap before the March 9 trade deadline.

Regier said in training camp the club wouldn't keep three goalies very long. Five months later, backups Martin Biron and Mika Noronen are still around -- and still rather valuable.

"The obvious question is the goaltender situation and if we can help ourselves in some regard in the event we have an opportunity to trade one," Regier said. "How can we help ourselves? It's not something we've been able to answer yet, but it's one of those things that will go down very close to the deadline.

"I get the sense in talking to my counterparts there has not been much movement, but it will begin to break loose. What that means for us? We don't know."

Regier indicated the price would be high for any team interested in Biron. Suitors for the veteran netminder had better be willing to part with a significant asset.

Whoever is the backup goalie, he'll be active down the stretch. The Sabres have consecutive days off only three times the remainder of the regular season, once in March. Biron proved his worth when he won a franchise-record 13 straight starts while Ryan Miller was out with a broken thumb.

"It would only be based on a very good reason," Regier said of the likelihood Biron would be dealt. "A very good reason would equate to . . . you could make of it what you want, but we'd need a good reason, and we haven't been given one as of yet."

Regier conceded the Sabres are thin on the blue line. If a trade is made, look for at least one incoming component to be a defenseman.

"It's the area we have the least depth," Regier said. "We have a lot of confidence in the depth we have up front, including the guys that are still in Rochester. We have confidence in the defensemen in Rochester, but maybe not the amount of experience that we have at forward."

A deal would need to improve the team not only on paper, but also in the dressing room. These Sabres are a tight bunch, and Regier will have to consider a potential impact on chemistry before finalizing any transaction.

Briere isn't worried about the front office's trade-deadline strategy.

"We have to believe in what the organization has planned," Briere said. "They believed in the players we have here. They had a plan the last few years with what they were building. Not too many people believed they were right, but it's paying off now. You have to believe in them that they're going to make the right call."

No matter what happens the rest of the way, Briere is eager to experience the ride.

"With the city behind us, you're going to see a team that's going to leave it all on the ice," Briere said. "It's tough to predict where we'll be and what's going to happen. We have a relatively tough schedule, but we've been through tough stretches and adversity already. It made us stronger.

"It's hard to explain how excited I am to be a part of the Sabres."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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