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Vanek's return is days away

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The best news Thomas Vanek has heard lately? "No soup for you!" The best news Buffalo Sabres fans can hear? The team's premier sniper is expected back next week.

Vanek's recovery from a fractured jaw is going well, and the left winger joined coach Lindy Ruff in saying he may return Wednesday, when the Sabres host Montreal.

"I hope so," Vanek said prior to Thursday's game against the Carolina Hurricanes. "I would like to play tonight, but obviously it's not stable enough yet. So hopefully another week and I'll be back."

Vanek was injured Feb. 7 when he was struck in the face by a shot in Ottawa. He was back to his old self Thursday in the RBC Center, standing in front of the net during the morning skate and deflecting blasts from the point.

It seemed risky considering an errant shot could put him back out, but Ruff said the drills were needed to get Vanek back in game shape.

"That's his strength," Ruff said. "If he can't get in front of the net and get that part of his game going, we're not using him properly. He's got to be comfortable with being in that area. We're going to get him a lot of pucks in the next few days, get him back in a lot of the drills and get him ramped up because the end is near for him sitting out games."

Vanek stayed on the ice after practice along with scratches Andrew Peters, Teppo Numminen, Nathan Paetsch and Maxim Afinogenov. He was put through a strenuous skate and said he felt more in shape than he expected.

"The first week after the injury I didn't do much," Vanek said. "The second week I actually started exercising already, and I think that helped me out a little bit. After two weeks of not skating, I was pleasantly surprised with how good I felt out there."

Vanek, who leads the Sabres with 32 goals, tried new protection for his jaw Thursday. In place of a full mask was a two-piece contraption. The top of his face was covered by his normal half shield, and a guard somewhat similar to a football face mask covered the jaw.

"I know once I come back I'm going to have to use it," he said. "I'm guessing at least a month. I'm trying different things, what I can see the best and breathe the best. I'm used to them [from college at Minnesota], and just trying different things, how I can protect my jaw the best as well."

Vanek isn't considerably smaller than he was nine games ago, but he said he did lose weight while his jaw was wired shut. He could consume only liquids, a restricted diet he's glad has disappeared.

"I couldn't eat anything for two weeks, just soups and protein shakes," Vanek said. "It's nice to get some solid food again. It's mainly pasta and really soft stuff, but it's better than soup."

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Patrick Lalime, who missed Wednesday's practice because of the flu, recovered and was the starting goaltender against the Hurricanes. He participated fully in the morning skate then went about the business of replenishing himself after not being able to eat and drink.

"Once you're over it, you just put the gas in the machine and get going again," Lalime said.

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Former Sabres forward Michael Ryan is back with the Hurricanes on his third call-up. He had one assist and a minus-1 rating in his first 11 outings.

"I wanted to show [coach Paul Maurice] what I was capable of, and I've gained some confidence, and I think I've slowly been able to do that," Ryan told the Raleigh News and Observer.

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It was easy to think back to the 2006 playoffs entering the morning skate. A big game against Carolina, uncertainty about who would be healthy enough to play. But Ruff didn't think back to those Eastern Conference finals, which the Sabres lost with a depleted defense. He did, however, think back to that time last month.

"No flashbacks," Ruff said. "What came the closest, really, was when we had four defensemen out earlier this year and headed out West. That was the thing that brought you back thinking, 'Boy, this happened to us once before.' "

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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