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Waiting for Hecht to get clicking Usually dependable, he can't break slump SABRES VS. MAPLE LEAFS: Faceoff: 7 p.m. * Air Canada Centre TV: Versus * Radio: 550 AM * Season series: Sabres, 2-1

The Buffalo Sabres expected Jochen Hecht to be their best two-way player. This season, there's no two ways about it: He isn't.

Hecht carved a reputation the previous five seasons as a dependable guy who did his job at both ends of the ice. He scored enough goals to be considered a threat, and his defensive prowess earned him assignments against the opponents' top line.

Few things have gone right in 2008-09. His numbers are lacking. He's had long stretches of invisibility. He's been called out by his coach. In the latest disappointment, the Sabres' hottest player was paired with him and almost instantly went cold.

Hecht has 25 games to fix his problems, starting tonight when the Sabres face Toronto in Air Canada Centre.

"He's a key piece for our team," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Monday. "Down the stretch, we need him. We really do.

"He's always been kind of the, I'd call him the dirt-and-oil guy, that can play both sides of the game, can give us some offense, has always been around 20 goals, has been a top penalty killer. All those little areas when you lose confidence are affected."

Confidence may be a factor, but Hecht's performance hasn't been.

He averaged 18.5 goals and 31.25 assists the past four seasons. It will take a remarkable surge to come close to either number. He has just six goals and 11 assists, which puts him on pace to finish with just nine goals and 17 helpers.

He had one point-blank shot in the third period of Sunday's 3-0 loss to Carolina, but goaltender Cam Ward stopped him.

"I had a big chance in the slot there and just couldn't put it in," Hecht said. "They have to start going in. For us to make the playoffs, I have to put those in. It's tough, it's hard. I've just got to find a way to do it.

"As long as we're winning, it's fine. But in games like [Sunday] where we don't have a good start or have problems, it's hard on you if don't contribute offensively."

Hecht has twice been slowed by injuries. A few minutes after scoring in the second game of the season, he broke his finger and missed 10 games. He missed two games earlier this month after getting knocked dizzy Jan. 31 in Phoenix. Injuries, however, don't explain his lack of production or the fact he's slipped to minus-11 after going a combined plus-47 the previous four seasons.

The 31-year-old is in the opening season of a four-year, $14.1 million contract. He earned it by making smart decisions with the puck and controlling it along the boards. He's making more mental mistakes -- the latest came Sunday when his failed clearing attempt went to Eric Staal for the game's opening goal -- and he hasn't been quick enough to get to the puck in order to control it.

The result is extended slumps for Hecht and his linemates. Hecht has had four goal-scoring droughts, one lasting nine games, another lasting eight and two going seven games, including the current one.

It seems contagious. Linemate Jason Pominville has had stretches of ineffectiveness, recently going 17 games without a goal. In an effort to heat them both up, Ruff placed center Tim Connolly in the middle of the line. Connolly came in with nine goals in nine games, and he's going out with none in the past four.

Ruff split the line up Monday, placing Clarke MacArthur with Hecht and Pominville. Connolly joined Ales Kotalik and Matt Ellis.

"It just doesn't seem like we're getting any production out of -- and I'm talking top scoring chances -- out of having Tim and Jochen and Pommer together," Ruff said. "Sometimes lines just don't work, and that line hasn't been working."

Hecht believes something will eventually click.

"I'm getting chances to score goals now, and I think that's an improvement from the beginning and start of the season, the first half," Hecht said. "I can't wait another half to put them in."

***

Three injured Sabres took a big step toward returning to the lineup. Defenseman Henrik Tallinder and forwards Paul Gaustad and Maxim Afinogenov all practiced fully in HSBC Arena. Gaustad is expected to return Thursday in Philadelphia, but there's an outside chance he could be ready for the Maple Leafs.

There's no date set for the other two, though Ruff was coy when asked if Afinogenov could come back from his groin injury this week.

"I don't know, we'll just have to wait and see," Ruff said.

Tallinder said he's feeling daily progress with his shoulder ailment.

"The doctor's given him the OK to push ahead," Ruff said, "try to get involved in a lot heavier stuff, from the battling stuff in practice to pushing it a little hard off ice, so it's just how it responds to that."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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