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Standouts stand up during recent streak

How many times have you heard coach Lindy Ruff say this season that the Buffalo Sabres' best players have to be their best players? Injuries and ineffective play have rendered many of the forwards too silent during the season but they're responding now.

Jochen Hecht and Drew Stafford are both on their hottest stretches of the season, with Stafford collecting 10 goals and 14 points over his last 12 games. Thomas Vanek has pushed his goal total to a team-high 16 to crack the NHL's top 30 and is tied for fifth in the league with eight power-play goals.

And Jason Pominville seems to have shaken the impact of his October concussion. Pominville had no points on the final two games of the team's recent road trip but still has six goals and 13 points over his last 13 games. He's also plus-4 in that stretch.

"I've been playing a lot better," Pominville said Monday. "Our line [with Vanek and Tim Connolly] was a little disappointed about our play [in Saturday's 2-1 win at Phoenix] but those nights will happen. It's about being consistent and trying to contribute on a nightly basis. I've done it in the past so I don't see what I can't keep doing it."

Pominville missed eight games with his injury, then had just two goals in the first 15 games after his return. He has eight goals and 12 assists for the season and his final numbers will likely not come close to his average of 26 goals and 69 points over the last four years.

"It is tough to look at numbers and see them lower than what they're usually at," he said. "But I've had to deal with things I've never dealt with in my NHL career. It is a little frustrating but you have to look at my play overall. That's definitely been better."

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Ruff said winger Patrick Kaleta is still not ready to return from the hand injury he suffered Dec. 28 in Edmonton. But defenseman Mike Weber could be back tonight after missing Saturday's game in Phoenix. Weber suffered an undisclosed upper-body injury when he blocked a shot Thursday in San Jose.

In Weber's absence, Chris Butler got 10 minutes of ice time in his first action since Dec. 18 against Tampa. Butler, who has three assists and a minus-1 rating in 21 games, had been a healthy scratch for the previous seven games and will likely return to that role when Weber returns.

Butler shared press box time with Andrej Sekera late last season and has been the odd defenseman out with the emergence of Weber and the return of Craig Rivet to the lineup. The Sabres have been dressing seven defensemen to give their top three forward lines more ice time.

"It's not where I want to be, not a good feeling," Butler said. "You just try to earn more respect, earn the trust of everyone. You don't want to let your teammates down when you jump in. You want it to be a smooth transition.

"I didn't play well in Tampa. So for now, I'll take it game by game and worry about what I can control. Don't be afraid or tentative. Try to go out there, make things happen."

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Tonight's game will have an opening faceoff in the 7:38 p.m range, and it is a Versus telecast. The Sabres' broadcast team of Rick Jeanneret and Harry Neale can only be heard on Radio 550 AM. Jeanneret is returning after taking his annual vacation the last six games.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com