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Sabres get schedule breaks ; Gaps between games put top six on ice

For a team that plays an NHL-high 22 sets of back-to-back games this season, the start of January might not be a vacation for the Buffalo Sabres, but it's at least manageable.

The team plays back-to-back just once this month (Jan. 20 at Boston, the next night home against the Islanders), giving coach Lindy Ruff the ability to run his top-six forwards out onto the ice more often.

"The schedule is leaning towards every other day, where we can put a little bit more pressure on the top lines," Ruff said. "They can handle a little bit more ice time. You can dress one less forward. Keep your top lines at 19 or 20 minutes, something like that."

The Sabres practiced Monday at the Northtown Center in Amherst before boarding their charter for Denver, where they begin a three-game road trip against the Colorado Avalanche tonight (9 p.m., MSG, Radio 550 AM). They'll have a day off in between each game on the trip, which continues Thursday in San Jose and Saturday in Phoenix.

"We have a day in between to get a practice in or catch our breath a little bit," forward Drew Stafford said. "It's just a matter of focus. Making sure we're 100 percent prepared every night."

The team's big guns got a taste of the increased ice time in Saturday's 7-6 shootout win over the Boston Bruins. Five forwards played more than 20 minutes. Four of them -- Stafford (20:59, hat trick), Jason Pominville (21:42, four points), Jochen Hecht (22:41), and Tim Connolly (21:13, two assists) -- all skated a season high in minutes. The other forward to go more than 20 minutes, Thomas Vanek (20:01), scored for the first time in eight games.

"The key is you have to play well. You can have lots of minutes, but if you don't play well, it doesn't do you any good," Ruff said. "We're hoping with the extra minutes you stay ramped up a little bit more inside the game. We're not playing four-in-six [games], we're not playing back-to-back games, so it makes it easier to play three lines."

Getting Pominville on the ice as much as possible makes sense, since he's on one of the best runs of his career. His two goals and two assists against the Bruins was the first four-point game this year by a Sabre, and he's got 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in the last 14 games.

Pominville had just four points in his first 12 games back from his Oct. 11 concussion against Chicago.

"I think the conditioning was fine, sometimes it's timing [and] the execution that's off," he said. "Your focus is a little off too. I didn't have any symptoms, but I didn't feel as good as I do now."

Pominville said any player on the team would welcome more ice time.

"You ask anybody -- whether you're top six or not -- you'd want to be out there and play as much as you can," he said. "You're out there every two, three shifts, so it's fun."

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Forward Patrick Kaleta will travel with the team on its this trip, but don't expect to see the Angola native in the lineup.

Kaleta skated during practice Monday, but didn't put his left hand on his stick.

"Pat's out for a little bit of time," Ruff said after the workout. "He can come with us and skate."

Kaleta was hurt against Edmonton when he blocked a shot. He missed Saturday's game. Ruff didn't say whether Kaleta's injury was a broken hand (or wrist), describing it only as "upper-body, outer extremity."

Ruff didn't discount the possibility of a break, though.

"Pretty fair assumption, you guys caught right onto it," he said.

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Ruff also said using seven defensemen, as the team did against the Bruins, could continue tonight. Captain Craig Rivet skated just 6:47 against the Bruins.

That doesn't mean that Nathan Gerbe will definitely be a healthy scratch, however.

"I don't know about that," Ruff said. "We could alternate some of our younger forwards right now."

e-mail: jskurski@buffnews.com

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