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For Sabres, it's full strength ahead Tallinder's return could steady ship

The Buffalo Sabres tottered into Christmas having won barely half their December games and letting a point get away when they couldn't close the deal against a team they should've beaten.

At least the Sabres were together.

For the first time in 25 games, the Sabres on Saturday night skated with the same group that broke camp. They had both goalies, their top six defensemen and nary a reserve among their 12 forwards.

Smooth defenseman Henrik Tallinder came back from his broken left forearm and, although he was on the ice for every goal the St. Louis Blues scored in a 3-2 overtime loss in Scottrade Center, his presence was comforting for the Sabres.

"He's a great skater," goalie Martin Biron said. "A lot of times you see him in the back of the play, in the corner, getting those dump-ins. His lengthy stride . . . It was good to see him out on the ice again."

The Sabres had their penalty killing virtuoso again, a player who before he got hurt was beginning to generate Norris Trophy talk.

But more than that, his presence allowed the other five defensemen a return to normalcy. The whole crew should play when the Sabres return Tuesday versus the Washington Capitals in HSBC Arena.

"It's a big step in the right direction for us," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, whose players have lost 69 games to injuries, not counting concussed center Tim Connolly.

Ruff could pair up his defenseman however he wanted and spread out the ice time as he prefers. Brian Campbell, familiar with skating 30 minutes a night while Tallinder was out, clocked out at 19:40 in St. Louis.

While Tallinder was sidelined, the Sabres also went without his partner, Toni Lydman, for nine games because of migraines. Teppo Numminen and Jaroslav Spacek missed a game here or there, but the Sabres failed to find a prospect ready to contribute.

Suffice to say, first-year pros Mike Card, Michael Funk and Andrej Sekera didn't fill the void when they were called up.

The only drawback to dressing the full complement was that Ruff had to bench seventh defenseman Nathan Paetsch for the first time in nearly two months. The rookie had seven assists and a plus-5 rating in 24 games.

"It's good to have Henrik back, but on the other hand Paetsch has played great," said Tallinder's partner, Lydman said. "It's a tough situation for the coaching staff to put a guy to the side who's been playing pretty solid for us. It's a tough position, but that's the way it is."

Spacek and Numminen took some knocks in Thursday night's 7-2 triumph over the Nashville Predators but played. Spacek skated with Campbell, while Numminen was with Dmitri Kalinin.

"Sometimes you get concerned because some guys get in a groove playing with other people," Ruff said. "In Nashville, Lydman and Campbell played very well together. So you always have a little bit of fear when you tear some things apart to put things back together.

"But we know, long-term, we're a better team with Hank in the lineup. He'll only get better after tonight."

Ruff didn't hesitate to use Tallinder, who had 23:08 of ice time. Lydman led all skaters on both sides with just 33 seconds more.

Tallinder was back on the top short-handed unit that killed off both power plays the Blues had, although Bill Guerin tied the game moments after Numminen exited the penalty box.

"Hank played pretty good considering the time that he missed," Lydman said. "He didn't look that rusty to me. We were on the ice every time they scored, so there are a lot of things we can do better. But, overall, I felt he had a good game."

The Sabres won 10 straight games to start the season with Tallinder in the lineup. They won 15 of their 24 games without him.

They went into their league-mandated two-day Christmas break with the Eastern Conference's best record of 25-7 with three overtime or shootout losses. They are seven points behind the Anaheim Ducks, who have played three more games.

The Sabres' closest competition in the conference standings are the Southeast Division-leading Atlanta Thrashers, who are five points back with two more games played. The Montreal Canadiens, nearest Northeast Division foes, are six points behind the Sabres after the same number of games.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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