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Power-play void on front burner

The job description is far from enviable. It goes something like this:

Position yourself in front of the opponent's net. Take repeated cross-checks and whacks across the ankle from a bulky defenseman while wrestling him for position. Meanwhile, keep an eye on your teammates and make sure their shots don't whistle toward your skull. After ensuring your safety, try to: (a) tip the shot; and/or, (b) turn fast enough to see if there's a rebound and try to whack it into the net.

When complete, repeat.

The job isn't for the faint of heart, but the Buffalo Sabres are looking for a few people to fill it.

Thomas Vanek (fractured jaw) and Paul Gaustad (separated shoulder) held the job, but both are out with injuries. It leaves a huge hole on the power play, which went 1 for 12 in a 3-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday. Vanek, who leads the league with 15 man-advantage goals, and Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom are regarded as the NHL's top two players in front of the net. Gaustad also does well.

On Wednesday, Drew Stafford stepped in for the first power-play unit. Jochen Hecht and Clarke MacArthur worked the perimeter of the slot on the second group.

"Thomas is definitely one of the best in the league at that, as far as getting his stick on shots, finding a way to get in there," Stafford said. "It's a big loss, but hopefully we've got other guys that can step in there and contribute."

The Sabres know the job isn't easy. But with hard work comes big rewards, as Vanek's goal totals illustrate.

"That's a tough spot to stay, but very often the most rewarding as well," said defenseman Toni Lydman, who plays the point on the power play. "You get the loose pucks, and you might get the tips. Sometimes, it just hits you and good things happen.

"But like I said, it's a tough spot to stand in and it's tough to replace Thomas, who's one of the best in the league in front of that net. We just have to make sure someone's there to screen the goalie and cause havoc."

***

Lindy Ruff doesn't think defenseman Andrej Sekera is 100 percent, so the coach has no desire to risk losing him for even longer.

Sekera missed his 12th straight game with an ankle injury. Sekera said he wanted to play Wednesday. Ruff overruled him.

"I'm concerned that he felt it two days ago in practice, and I don't think he's ready," Ruff said. "I don't want a player back in there until we feel he's 100 percent. He's close. If this was playoffs you'd probably throw him in there and say, 'OK, let's go at it,' but I don't think that we need to lose a player that's not quite there yet."

Fellow defenseman Henrik Tallinder continued to skate with his teammates during practice in a noncontact role. He missed his eighth game with a shoulder injury. Right wing Maxim Afinogenov, who missed his 16th game in a row with a groin injury, also took part in the morning skate.

"Max is skating with one of our coaches before practice now," Ruff said. "He's getting better. He's on that trail that will lead him to practice with the team probably, I'd say, within days."

***

With Vanek out, Nathan Gerbe was recalled from Portland of the American Hockey League.

Left wing Daniel Paille was scratched for the third straight game with Gerbe getting the call. Gerbe was tied for the AHL rookie scoring lead (20 goals, 17 assists).

"We don't look for Dan Paille to replace Thomas Vanek," Ruff said. "We look for Dan Paille to dislodge Nathan Paetsch, or that type of role. This is about replacing some offense with somebody that's good offensively. You don't take 32 goals out of your lineup and replace it easily, but I think you try to replace it with offense."

***

Sabres defenseman Teppo Numminen left the game with an upper-body injury late in the second period and did not return.

"Teppo just wasn't feeling well," Ruff said, "so we took him out of the game."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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