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Getting a charge out of depth Sabres' lines are drawn with talent on all levels

The Buffalo Sabres take pride in being a deep club, one that can get scoring from all four lines. On the eve of Game One against the New York Islanders, with a lineup that's nearly at full health, that depth has reached almost ridiculous proportions.

The Sabres had their first playoff practice Tuesday in the Amherst Pepsi Center, and they trotted out four lines that each could serve among the top two on a dozen teams. From Daniel Briere down to Tim Connolly, from Jason Pominville down to Drew Stafford, the Sabres' depth chart may be the most formidable it's been during this two-year run of excellence.

"We've got four lines that can play and score goals, even more now than we had in the regular season," left wing Jochen Hecht said. "It's pretty exciting."

Prefer a line with the NHL's seventh-best assist man? One that has been together since the first puck dropped in training camp? Then Daniel Briere (63 assists) centering Hecht and right wing Jason Pominville (34 goals) will suit nicely.

How about a line with a Selke Trophy candidate, a lockdown center who, oh by the way, scored 37 times? Chris Drury in the middle of left wing Ales Kotalik and 24-goal scorer Dainius Zubrus fills that bill.

Need a unit with three guys over 20 goals? Would it help if they took care of their defensive zone, too? Then Derek Roy (21 goals, plus-37 rating) flanked by left wing Thomas Vanek (43 goals, NHL-best plus-47) and right wing Maxim Afinogenov (23 goals, plus-19) will float your boat.

Then there's the fourth line. Injuries have left it unsettled for most of the season, but the Sabres think they've found the combination to leave opponents gasping. Connolly, last season's fifth-leading scorer, will be in the middle of left wing Adam Mair and Stafford, the NHL's Rookie of the Month in March.

"If we want to have success, we need every line going," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "I think it's important that we have depth through all four of them.

"The onus isn't on any one individual. I think everybody wants to have a good playoff. I think there's always playoff surprises where it could be any number of our 12 forwards that could surprise you and come out leading the scoring or be involved heavily in the scoring."

The fourth line earned the most looks as the countdown began to Thursday's first game. Connolly, who played the final two regular-season games after being sidelined since last May, continues to improve.

"I'm still going to have to take a day off to recover here and there so that I can work harder the next day," he said, "but overall, for just being on the ice for a couple weeks, I felt pretty good out there."

Mair has played all 82 games this season, but there was thought given to dressing Daniel Paille as the final winger. Ruff likes the grit and experience the 28-year-old Mair can bring.

"He's been here a long time," Ruff said. "He's played every game this year. He's played hard. He's been there for teammates. Within our system, he's played very hard. He deserves to play.

"Danny Paille has played very well, too. Adam's got a few years on him. We could go different directions. We could go with Connolly, Paille and Mair, but again at the same time, Staff has played very well coming up. Those are tough decisions that end up being easy decisions."

Connolly skated with Mair during the closing weekend and enjoyed it.

"Playing with Adam Mair, he does a lot of the work that makes it a lot easier on you," Connolly said. "He's always the first to go on the forecheck and the backcheck, and he actually makes the game a little bit easier for me out there."

The Sabres certainly will not make things easy on the Islanders. With scoring ability, speed and playmakers on all four Sabres lines, New York's defensive system will face its biggest test.

"It's important to have that depth," Mair said. "I think [General Manager] Darcy [Regier] has given us the tools to get a job done, with the depth up front and in the net and on defense. It's up to the players and the coaching staff to use it to our advantage."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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