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Kalinin hopes to continue rebound Defenseman shows signs of revival

The Buffalo Sabres didn't obtain anyone new at the trade deadline.

They hope Dmitri Kalinin will make it seem as though they did.

Pegged as the team's premier defenseman before the season began, Kalinin has been nothing special. Injuries, angst and apprehension have dictated his disappointing campaign so far.

The front office had the chance to fortify the blue line last week, but they reaffirmed their commitment to Kalinin standing pat.

"We really feel we've got a hidden gem if we can get him back to that level that he was at the end of '03-04," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "I'm confident that we can get him there."

Kalinin has shown recent signs of vibrancy. Shaky play has been the norm, but he has looked strong in his past two games and hopes to continue his reformation when the Sabres meet the Washington Capitals at 7 tonight in the Verizon Center.

If he can get back to the form he displayed in 2003-04, the Sabres' chances of winning the Stanley Cup will improve considerably.

"I'm trying," Kalinin said. "I was not having a very good season in the beginning, a couple injuries and those kind of things. But I got a little time before playoffs start to get back in the game and feel comfortable."

Injuries, however, have played only a part in Kalinin's puzzling season.

Ruff tried everything to kick start Kalinin. He benched him during games, scratched him, skated the bejeezus out of him in practice.

"I don't think it's anything more," than Kalinin needing to cope mentally, Ruff said. "It's his relationship with me. It's his beliefs that I still believe in him. I think he takes a lot of that inside, and that shows up in his play."

Kalinin, in three starts since missing 10 games with a separated shoulder, has been impressive. He has played well in his own end and has mixed it up offensively with one assist. He almost scored a goal from between the hash marks in Sunday's 6-2 victory over the Boston Bruins.

"I've liked his last two games," Ruff said. "His puck movement has been very good, coming out of his zone. His defensive play has gotten stronger. His competitive battle down low has been very good.

"I think better things are to come yet."

Kalinin was coming off his finest season, posting career-highs with 10 goals and 24 assists. He had an even rating on a team loaded with minuses.

Many considered his breakout campaign a major steppingstone for an All-Star in the making.

At 25 years old, the timing seemed right for everything to meld. The Sabres quickly got over the loss of free agent Alexei Zhitnik by slotting Kalinin as the new No. 1 defenseman.

"He's a great defenseman," said veteran teammate Rory Fitzpatrick. "He's showed it in the past. I don't know what the problem is or was, but sometimes you just go through stretches where you don't play as well and then you lose your confidence. You just hope to get it back.

"He seems to have all the tools. Some players have them and don't progress, but he should come out of this and be back to his old form."

Injuries hampered Kalinin from the get go. He suffered a groin injury in training camp and missed the first three games of the season. When he came back he mostly was ineffective, recording his lone goal and nine assists through 19 games.

Ruff became so irritated with Kalinin's play the defenseman was benched during the Nov. 23 triumph over the New York Islanders. Then Ruff made a desperate attempt to jolt Kalinin's passion by not bothering to dress him three times in the next five games.

Kalinin sat out 10 games in December and January with a broken finger. Ten games into his return from that injury, including 4:36 of ice time one night, he had managed a single point before the separated shoulder sidelined him.

"Whenever you have an injury it's always tough," Kalinin said. "I was disappointed, but there's nothing you can do about injuries."

All told, Kalinin has one goal, 12 assists and a plus-5 rating in 37 games. He's averaging 16:37 of ice time.

Kalinin's numbers from 2003-04 -- coupled with his superb defensive play that season -- were too difficult to forget when the trade deadline approached.

"The overwhelming opinion was as coaches and really the management team that we could get Dmitri back to where we needed him and that he was going to be better than anything we could find on the outside," Ruff said.


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