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Sabres left with nowhere else to turn

You know how it is with Lindy Ruff and backup goalies. They're useful to have around, like spare tires and fire extinguishers. But in a perfect hockey universe, the Sabres' coach would be compelled to use his backup in only the most dire emergency.

Maybe it's Dominik Hasek's fault, but Ruff rarely seems to develop an abiding trust in his No. 2 goaltender. Trust? In the second half last season, Ruff would have sooner forwarded his paychecks to one of those overseas scam artists than play Jocelyn Thibault.

But suddenly, he has no choice. Necessity has dictated that Ruff turn his team's fortunes over to backup Patrick Lalime, who inherited the starter's job when Ryan Miller sprained his ankle against the Rangers on Saturday.

Ruff says he's confident. He has faith in Lalime's ability to hold the fort. Of course, he has no choice.

"Patty knows he's playing," Ruff said. "We've got a lot of trust that he's going to play well for us, and I think he's got a lot of trust that the team is going to play well in front of him."

It's hard for a backup to develop a rhythm when he plays once every two weeks. Ruff expects Lalime, 34, to find a rhythm quickly. Last year in Chicago, Lalime played more than expected because of injuries and went 16-12-2.

Lalime's other numbers were unremarkable. He had a 2.82 goals-against average and an .897 save percentage a year ago. That's not much better than his stats in Buffalo this year (3.17, .895). Lalime hasn't finished a season with a save percentage of .900 since the 2003-04 season in Ottawa.

So it's a big drop-off from Miller, who had been on the hottest eight-week stretch of his career. Miller had been the Sabres' clear-cut MVP this year. He has covered up a multitude of sins for a team with a bunch of struggling goal-scorers and a defense in transition.

They're in a heap of trouble if Lalime doesn't raise his game, and soon. Lalime has been OK lately. He played well in the loss at Anaheim, which plays at HSBC Arena tonight. But he has started and won exactly one game since Oct. 13. Hardly a cause for optimism.

Miller still has no idea how long he'll be out. Ankle sprains can be mystifying, especially for goalies. There's no way to know for sure, but Miller is likely to miss at least eight games, and it could be worse. The NHL trade deadline is eight days from now. There's a lot of pressure on Lalime, and he knows it.

"It's there," he said.

The Sabres have to be feeling the heat, too. They're being criticized for failing to stand up for their goalies. Now they have to rally around a backup. They're fighting for a playoff spot. If Lalime plays poorly over the next three games, and the outlook doesn't improve for Miller, management might become a seller at the trade deadline.

Ruff laughed when someone asked about the sense of crisis in town, and whether he talked to his team about it.

"I haven't said anything," Ruff said. "I don't ever deal with injuries with the team. I know it's a big injury. I didn't say anything to them about Thomas [Vanek's] injury. It's my responsibility to make sure the team plays real well in front of [Lalime] and we win games."

Maybe there's no crisis, but it was interesting to see Vanek back skating Monday. You wondered if the No. 1 goal scorer saw the No. 1 goalie go down and decided to give his teammates at least one small bit of encouraging news.

Ruff's teams have had some of their best victories with their top players out. Three years ago, remember, Miller broke his thumb and Martin Biron won 13 consecutive starts.

It was a different team, a different time, a different backup goalie. I suspect Ruff will be thrilled to go .500 without Miller this time around.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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