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Stempniak facing hometown team

ST. LOUIS -- The matchup won't be as significant for Lee Stempniak as it will be when he comes to HSBC Arena. But when the St. Louis Blues winger skates against the Buffalo Sabres tonight for the first time, he knows it will be pretty cool.

Stempniak grew up a Sabres fan in West Seneca. Now, in his second NHL season, he'll get a chance to play them.

"You always want to play against a team you rooted for your whole life if you can't play for them," Stempniak said. "It's going to be a really special game to play against your hometown team for the first time.

"It'll be on television back home, the one game everybody gets to see me play. Hopefully, it's going to be a good game for me."

Because of the NHL's limited interconference schedule, the Sabres and Blues didn't meet last season. They'll play only once this season. The Blues will come to Buffalo next season.

Stempniak's family is in St. Louis for Christmas and will attend tonight's game in Scottrade Center. His father, Larry, works for the Quebecor World printing company in Depew. His mother, Carla, is a late-shift clerk for the U.S. Postal Service.

Stempniak's journey to the NHL began as a 6-year-old in the West Seneca mite house leagues. He skated a season for the Buffalo Saints, two for St. Francis and two for the Buffalo Lightning, which now is called the Buffalo Junior Sabres.

He went on to star at Dartmouth. He said the first inkling he could play in the big leagues occurred during his sophomore season. Linemate Hugh Jessiman was drafted 13th overall by the New York Rangers.

"It was one of those times," Stempniak said, "when I started to think, 'Why not me?' I realized with a lot of hard work, it was possible."

Stempniak has 10 goals and eight assists for the cellar-dwelling Blues. He recently ended a 15-game stretch of zero goals and two assists. He had a goal and an assist in Thursday night's victory over the Los Angeles Kings.

"I'm telling you he's going to be a pure goal scorer in this league," veteran Blues winger Keith Tkachuk said. "He's got, besides [leading scorer Bill Guerin], probably the best shot on the team. You saw it [Thursday] night. That was a Cam Neely-type goal. It was just -- boom -- a quick release. He's got an eye for the net and a heavy shot.
"No matter how much he plays, he always gets prime scoring chances. The puck seems to follow him. But he works hard. He spends a lot of time after practice working on his shot. He's a great kid. He wants to learn."

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Tonight's game is the farthest west the Sabres travel this season, barely crossing the Mississippi River for the only time. The localized schedule should be beneficial down the home stretch.

Almost all of their flights will be in the one-hour range, and they'll need to adjust their watches one hour backward only once more, when they play the Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 10.

"It's good that we don't travel that much," Sabres winger Maxim Afinogenov said. "A few years ago we traveled everywhere. But I don't know if that's bad or that's good that we're not traveling as much. We got a good [road] record right now, and we want to keep it going."

***

Sabres defenseman Teppo Numminen, who took a shot off the inside of his knee late in Thursday night's 7-2 victory over the Nashville Predators, practiced Friday and is expected to play tonight. Coach Lindy Ruff said the Sabres had no plans to summon a reserve from Rochester just in case.

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The Sabres made quite an impression in Nashville. It was the Predators' most lopsided defeat of the year and their first regulation loss in Gaylord Entertainment Center since the season opener.

"We were taught how to play by the Buffalo Sabres," Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "I feel humbled, and I feel embarrassed."

***

When Michael Leighton replaced otherwise-omnipresent Predators netminder Chris Mason at the start of the third period, both goalies were in plain white masks.

"When was the last you saw that, 1979 maybe?" Sabres goalie Martin Biron said. "I don't even know. It was probably before I was even born."

Biron has been wearing his old, unpainted practice model almost the entire season. He ditched his blue-and-gold mask, which he found too tight.

Leighton, who came to the Sabres in a trade for Milan Bartovic but never got into a game, has a generic mask because he has been with the Predators a few weeks. They claimed him off waivers from the Anaheim Ducks. Thursday was his first NHL game since 2003-04.

"It's kind of funny," Biron said, "because Leights in the warm-up told me, 'Nice mask,' and I looked over and said, 'We match!' "

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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