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MacArthur is front and center Hecht injury creates Sabre opportunities SABRES VS. RANGERS: Faceoff: 7 p.m. * Madison Square Garden TV: MSG * Radio: 550 AM * 2007-08 season series: Rangers, 4-0

The Buffalo Sabres have several forwards who can play both center and wing and it's a good thing for them that they do. That's because the holes in the middle keep getting wider as the injuries pile up.

Jochen Hecht returned to Buffalo on Tuesday and had surgery on a finger he injured in Monday's win over the New York Islanders. In announcing the injury late Tuesday afternoon, the team did not specify which finger or the nature of the injury, but said Hecht is going to be out at least two weeks. His first game out of the lineup will be tonight against the unbeaten New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden.

Hecht joins Paul Gaustad (thumb) and Tim Connolly (back) out of the lineup. Three centers down makes for a mighty thin corps of forwards just two games into the season.

"Wow. Three centers. That's unfortunate," winger Jason Pominville said after practice at Chelsea Piers on Manhattan's West Side. "Jochen is a big part of the team who plays in every situation. He's adjusted to being a center, too, going from the wing. That's tough to handle. We all feel for him but here's a chance for someone to step up."

Enter Clark MacArthur. He was nearly scratched for the season opener against Montreal until Connolly got hurt. Now he's the team's No. 2 center and will skate tonight between Pominville and Daniel Paille.

"That's the way it goes in this game," MacArthur said. "You've got to be ready all the time. I felt I was practicing hard and staying with it. It's unfortunate we've lost some guys but it's an opportunity for me to come in and show something."

MacArthur was one of five Sabres to score their first goal of the season in Monday's 7-1 rout. A regular member of coach Lindy Ruff's doghouse last season for some lackluster defensive play, MacArthur has caught his coach's eye for the right reasons this year.

"He was on the outside looking in [at the lineup] and now he's on the inside looking out," Ruff said. "All you look for as a player is a good opportunity. This is better than a good one. This is a real good one. I've liked both his games so far."

Only the top line (Derek Roy centering for Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford) has gone unchanged thus far. MacArthur's line will be No. 2, followed by Adam Mair between Ales Kotalik and Maxim Afinogenov. Matt Ellis, acquired on waivers from Los Angeles late in training camp, will make his Buffalo debut tonight centering for Patrick Kaleta and Andrew Peters.

And Mair, remember, is coming off summer knee surgery and didn't play until the final game of the preseason.

"We're very fortunate that he's in great shape and has been able to skate the whole camp," Ruff said. "No Gaustad, no Connolly, no Hecht. We're rapidly making every winger into a center but it's a great opportunity for guys."

MacArthur has a huge challenge tonight because he'll likely be matched up with one of the Rangers' big-name centers, either former Sabres co-captain Chris Drury or Scott Gomez.

"That's going to be tough for me," MacArthur said. "They're smart center men and obviously their money shows it. I'm going to have to be ready to go. They're both good on draws and they move the puck quick."

The Rangers are already 5-0, thanks to an early start to the season that included two wins over Tampa Bay in Prague. A victory tonight would break their franchise record for their fastest start.

"They're flying pretty high," said goaltender Ryan Miller, who's expected back in the net after backup Patrick Lalime made his Buffalo debut Monday. "They have a lot of confidence and I think Europe served them well. They had a little bonding experience and put together two wins. We're going to have to try to take away some of that attitude."

"It will be interesting and I'm excited to play them," Pominville said. "It will be a real challenge."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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