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Rookie Novotny enjoys the dream

Jiri Novotny, seated at his locker stall, was unlacing his skates when a reporter approached the Buffalo Sabres forward for a couple minutes.

"Thirty seconds," Novotny replied then lifted his head, revealing a wide smile.

He abruptly stood and perched a foot on a vacant bench, eager to answer whatever was thrown at him. Turns out, he had all the time anybody needed.

The Czech rookie doesn't do many interviews. Normally a fourth-line grinder on a talent-laden squad atop the Eastern Conference, he could be the team's most overlooked player.

Don't think the lack of recognition bothers Novotny, who enters tonight's game against the Vancouver Canucks in HSBC Arena excited to build on a dream that seemed distant after he was drafted 22nd overall in 2001 but struggled to establish himself as a pro.

"My rookie season, I just enjoy the time I'm here with great players, a great team," Novotny said. "I've been working hard for this four years in Rochester and finally I make the team. This is the prize for me. I just enjoy every day and try hard for this team."

Novotny is coming off one of his more effective performances in Wednesday's 6-3 triumph over the Boston Bruins. With wingers Jochen Hecht and Paul Gaustad out with injuries, Novotny returned to his natural center position with between left wing Derek Roy and Maxim Afinogenov.

Novotny skated 16:59, four minutes more than his average, and registered his first point in seven games by setting up Afinogenov's third-period goal.

"I really think he is a better centerman than he is a winger," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "You can take [Wednesday] night, playing in the middle, we saw a lot more out of him."

Novotny's numbers haven't been sensational. In 45 games he has six goals, seven assists, 26 penalty minutes and a plus-1 rating. His most significant contributions have come on the penalty kill and in providing a rugged element.

"He's filled some different roles," Ruff said. "He's a guy that's used his size adequately. He goes in hard. He's one of our better guys that go in and forecheck with a good amount of physicality. That's the aspect we like out of him. We don't want some of those [aggressive plays] to turn into penalties, but he's the guy that has to pick up the physical end without a guy like Mike Grier in the lineup."

Novotny joined the Rochester Americans as a 19-year-old and had trouble keeping up. But he slowly developed into an all-around force and played 14 NHL games last season, registering one goal and two assists.

His stock rose over the offseason. The Sabres lost right wingers J.P. Dumont and Grier to free agency and traded left winger Taylor Pyatt to Vancouver. Uncertainty about concussed center Tim Connolly's return ensured Novotny would make the roster out of training camp.

Novotny was penciled in as the right winger on a line with co-captain Chris Drury and left winger Ales Kotalik. Through the first nine games Novotny had three goals and three assists, but Ruff didn't like the chemistry and sent Novotny to the fourth line.

Novotny remained an important part of the penalty kill, a responsibility that makes him beam with pride.

"I'm glad Lindy trusts me," he said. "Even five-on-three I'm out there with Chris Drury. It's important for me because I need the coach to trust me. I'm just happy for that role right there as a rookie."

As evidenced by the extra ice time Novotny received Wednesday -- he skated 3 1/2 minutes more than Afinogenov and 13 1/2 minutes more than former linemate Adam Mair -- the coaches aren't opposed to giving Novotny a bigger role.

Ruff said he might use him on Buffalo's beleaguered power play. Novotny scored 10 power-play goals in 66 games for Rochester last season.

"Some of it is 'Bide your time,' " Ruff said. "He's waiting his time, and for the most part that's a tough grind sometimes. But I've thought, overall for where he's at and where he's come from, his game has come quite a ways."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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