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Stafford is happy to be back in lineup

Drew Stafford has a healthy respect for players who are scratched, and now that he's healthy he's no longer scratched.

The right winger returned to the Buffalo Sabres' lineup Saturday during a 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers. He had missed six games with a groin injury, though he was feeling fine most of last week. That meant he endured the extra skating given to healthy scratches, an often exhausting experience.

Stafford gave credit to the role players who do it and added it allowed him to return to action earlier.

"You need to go through that," Stafford said in BankAtlantic Center. "You need to push it to get your conditioning where it needs to be. It's obviously not fun doing it, but I needed it."

Stafford suffered the groin ailment March 5 against Philadelphia. He took preventative measures to ensure it wouldn't linger.

"Any little feeling I had, I didn't want to push through it," he said. "Obviously, if we were in the playoffs it'd be a different story, but for this -- especially with a very, very important stretch run for us, being on the road and whatever happens in playoffs -- I want to be 100 percent."

Stafford replaced left wing Raffi Torres, who was scratched with an upper-body injury.

"It's something that's been being treated. He went through warm-up and couldn't do it, and I had to pull him out," coach Lindy Ruff said of Torres.

Stafford started the game on a line with Adam Mair and Patrick Kaleta. Andrej Sekera returned to the Sabres' blue line in place of Chris Butler.

"I'm going to alternate. Chris is going in [today]. I want to keep both guys going," Ruff said.

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The Sabres visit the Carolina Hurricanes today in RBC Center to close their five-game road trip. Patrick Lalime has been getting work in back-to-back games, so the goaltender could get his first start since a 3-2 loss to Minnesota on March 12.

Lalime was ridiculed by the Buffalo crowd throughout the setback after turning the puck over in the first period and putting the Sabres in a 2-0 hole. He finished with 30 saves on 33 shots. He also stopped 20 of 21 shots in relief of Ryan Miller on Tuesday in Atlanta.

"Everybody makes mistakes, and obviously it was nice to get back in there and play good," said Lalime, who's been stuck on 199 career wins for six appearances.

"Two hundred," he said with a grin. "What's 200? It's just another game, and we're playing to win, so whatever happens after that, we'll go get it."

Lalime is 11-4-4 with a 1.75 goals-against average and two shutouts against the Hurricanes.

***

The Panthers, who started playing in 1993, are celebrating their short history this weekend with the opening of a "Den of Honor." Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, an assistant in Florida for four seasons, was recognized prior to the game by the Panthers.

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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