The challenge for Lindy Ruff during the final six games of the season is to win the Northeast Division while giving goaltender Ryan Miller the proper rest for the Buffalo Sabres' playoff run. The challenge starts tonight.
The Sabres visit the Toronto Maple Leafs in Air Canada Centre, and Miller absolutely owns the Leafs. He is 5-0 this season with a 1.58 goals-against average and .960 save percentage.
Miller, though, was in the crease for Wednesday's game against Florida in HSBC Arena. Ruff needs to decide whether to stick with the (almost) sure thing for a second straight night or insert backup Patrick Lalime.
Also impacting the decision is the Sabres' remaining schedule. They play five of their final six on the road in the span of 11 days.
"We've weighed some options," Ruff said Wednesday. "We've got him extra days rest. He hasn't skated some game days, which are good. He feels good. I don't have any tentative plan. We had a day off this week. He had another day off when he didn't play.
"Right now we've got some back-to-back situations, we've got a little bit tougher schedule. We'll evaluate how the games go and make a decision on the route of the goaltending."
Miller appeared in his 65th game for the Sabres with the Panthers in town. He also played five games in February for the U.S. Olympic team, giving him a total of 70 since the season kicked off in October. His NHL career high, set two seasons ago, is 76.
Raffi Torres, eager to fit in with the Sabres, finally got another chance. He responded.
The left winger returned to the lineup after missing six games with a wrist injury. He had three assists, giving him five in just eight games since being acquired from Columbus on March 3.
"It's tough, especially obviously just getting moved to a new team," Torres said. "But it's all good now."
Ruff doesn't feel Torres exited the Olympic break (and thus entered his career in Buffalo) in the best shape, but the coach says Torres is in fine form now.
"He worked hard on his conditioning," Ruff said. "The Olympic break, some players come out of that ready to go. I don't think he was quite ready. Now it's an opportunity to get him back in and get him going.
"I liked what I saw."
The return of Torres forced the Sabres to demote Mark Mancari, who was up from Portland on an emergency recall.
Tim Connolly and Thomas Vanek continued to nurse lower-body injuries, and Ruff was noncommittal on whether they will return before the season ends April 11.
"When you're dealing with injuries it could be day to day, it could be longer," Ruff said. "It depends how they progress. There's always a chance.
"You worry about conditioning when you're injured, and how quick you can get them back and how quick you can get them back up to speed. The more games they can play before the season ends the bigger the advantage is for the players and for us."
Tyler Ennis, who is doing his best to avoid going back to the AHL, has been named one of the league's top rookies. The AHL honored Ennis on Wednesday as one of three forwards on its 2009-10 All-Rookie Team. Ennis had 65 points in 69 games with Portland before getting an emergency recall with the Sabres.
It's the second year in a row the Sabres have a prospect on the rookie team. Nathan Gerbe was named AHL Rookie of the Year last season, while Tim Kennedy was All-Rookie.
Ruff continued his defensive rotation between Chris Butler and Andrej Sekera. The Slovakian Olympian took a seat against the Panthers, while Butler is expected to sit tonight in Toronto.
"Somebody asked me when the rotation is going to end, and I said for both players they better hope it doesn't because that means one guy won't be playing," Ruff said. "There might come a game where one of those guys plays exceptionally well and we'll say, 'Well, we're going to stick with this guy for now.' But right now that hasn't happened."