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Little-seen Lalime plays important role

The fans who file into HSBC Arena don't see much of Patrick Lalime. Of his 11 appearances for the Buffalo Sabres this season, only three have come at home. The last one was Nov. 22, so it's easy to forget about him.

But the ecstatic crowd at the last game likely saw him. Wearing his bright yellow toque, Lalime was the happiest man in the building Friday as the Sabres came back for a 6-5 shootout win over San Jose.

The Sabres' backup goaltender stood at the end of the bench when Jason Pominville tied the game with 3.9 seconds left, waving his arms in a snow angel motion. After the team piled off the bench following the shootout, Lalime rammed into the pile, then gave double fist-pumps to every player as they retreated to the dressing room. Ryan Miller was last, and Lalime did a shimmy and shake before embracing his fellow netminder.

Lalime may not take the ice much, but there's no doubting he's important to the Sabres.

"He really is a big part of this team," coach Lindy Ruff said Saturday. "His attitude is a big part of this team. He's a workaholic. He has an upbeat, positive attitude to always be around. He tries his best to be ready when we play him, and he's been real great in support when he hasn't played."

Friday's victory was important to Lalime because he was so close to the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407. His brother-in-law saw the plane from Lalime's Clarence Center home, and they both witnessed the fireball. Lalime relished the high of winning.

"There was a lot of emotion," he said after practice in Amherst Pepsi Center. "We're a desperate team, working to make the playoffs. Every win's important, especially at home with everything that we've been going through the last couple of days with the city and stuff. It was a lot of emotion and nice to win."

It's unclear whether Lalime will start tonight's game against Carolina in the arena, but Ruff said Lalime is on the schedule to get games in the near future. He stopped 34 of 37 shots Feb. 2 in his last appearance, a 3-2 loss to Anaheim. The Sabres will need efficient outings like that if they want to stay in a playoff spot.

Lalime hopes they do. Friday's game had cheers not heard since the 2007 playoffs, and Lalime wants to experience them again.

"When we scored, everybody was up, and they stayed up the whole time. You could feel the energy out there, and it was great," said the goalie, who remembers being an outsider witnessing the Sabres' back-to-back runs to the Eastern Conference finals. "Watching on TV and the crowd going nuts, the people outside watching the games in the playoffs, it's something you want to repeat here. There's so many good stories about that, so we're all looking forward to get back there."

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Three of the Sabres' four injured players -- defenseman Henrik Tallinder and forwards Paul Gaustad and Maxim Afinogenov -- practiced in a limited role. Only Gaustad is close to returning. Ruff said it's possible the center could play Thursday when the Sabres visit Philadelphia.

Gaustad has missed four games with a separated shoulder. Afinogenov has missed 17 games with a groin injury, while Tallinder has been shelved for the past nine with a shoulder ailment.

"Max is getting close to returning to full practice," Ruff said. "Hank is just waiting on a little more strength. All three guys are doing good."

The missing injured Sabre was Thomas Vanek, who broke his jaw eight days ago and had it wired shut last Sunday.

"After two weeks the wire comes off," Ruff said. "After that it would be within days where he can start maybe off-ice [training]. I don't think he can start on ice yet, but it would be close to that."

Vanek has visited his teammates since the injury.

"He's been around," Ruff said. "Tough guy to talk to, though."

***

The Sabres are catching the Hurricanes on the second night of back-to-back games. Carolina lost, 5-1, to Columbus on Saturday.

Anyone thinking the schedule-makers gave Buffalo a break would be mistaken, however. The Hurricanes are 4-5-1 on the first night and an impressive 7-2 on the second night. The ninth-place Hurricanes sit five points back of the eighth-place Sabres in the Eastern Conference.

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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