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European opener may be in the offing

All the Buffalo Sabres have to do is say "yes" and they will start next season in Europe, according to ESPN.com and the rumor mill inside the team dressing room.

ESPN's Pierre LeBrun reported Saturday night that the NHL has asked the Sabres to be one of the six teams that will head overseas to begin the 2011-12 season in the annual Premiere Games.

"Nothing is finalized," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier told The Buffalo News during the third period of Saturday's 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders.

The other teams asked to travel to Europe are the Edmonton Oilers, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks, according to LeBrun, who quoted multiple industry sources. The league started the Premiere Games in 2007-08 with two games in London, and the preliminary plan calls for six games in six cities next season, LeBrun reported.

"I heard the rumor, too, that we're going to Germany to my hometown," Sabres left wing Jochen Hecht, who is from Mannheim, told The News. "That would be nice. We'll see."

The San Jose Sharks played an exhibition in Mannheim this season. Hecht said he and his family need about a week to get accustomed to the six-hour time change in Buffalo when he comes back from summers in his homeland. It is the obvious drawback to accepting the offer.

"It's tough dealing with the time change, going there, playing those games then coming back and jumping right into game action again," Hecht said. "It's a nice experience. On the other side, I think travel is going to be very hard."

The NHL's main desire with the Premiere Games is to grow the game outside North America. Bringing home an Olympian like Hecht and an Austrian sports hero like Thomas Vanek presumably would be a bonus for the European fans and the Sabres.

"It's always good to go," Vanek told The News. "I know growing up over there, I was a huge fan. Even though we only got about an hour a week to watch it, it was a thrill.

"To go over there now, I'm sure a lot of young kids are excited to see the teams."

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It's a common occurrence in dressing rooms across the NHL. Key players get hurt, and the remaining team members insist they won't use injuries as an excuse if things go wrong. Inevitably, things go astray and injuries get pushed forward as an excuse.

The Islanders proved they are no different. They've been bombarded by injuries since training camp, and they said they trudge forward no matter what. After finally turning things around following a terrible 5-18-5 start, they've acknowledged the obvious: Injuries took a toll.

"At the start of the year, we said we weren't going to make excuses for guys being injured," defenseman Andrew MacDonald said. "Maybe that hurt our success early."

It would be impossible for the injuries to not impact the Isles. Right wing Kyle Okposo and defenseman Mark Streit, the team's second- and third-leading scorers from last season, have yet to play after undergoing shoulder surgeries during the preseason. Veteran leader Doug Weight is suffering from back problems and has missed 25 games, including Saturday night's outing against the Sabres. Power forward Trent Hunter has missed 21 games because of a knee injury, and defenseman Mark Eaton was lost for the season last week after hip surgery.

That would be a lot for any team to overcome, but it was especially taxing on the talent-thin Islanders.

There is finally hope. Franchise goaltender Rick DiPietro returned to the crease against the Sabres after missing five games with a groin strain. Okposo has ramped up his skating and could return soon. Streit is working out again. The appearances have brought needed energy to Nassau Coliseum.

"It means a lot to know we've got help on the way," New York center John Tavares said Saturday. "The month-and-a-half stretch was really unacceptable I think for everybody with what we were going through. We've really come together through it, though. We've dealt with adversity a lot better, and now Ricky's feeling good and good to go again. Kyle should be back soon, and just seeing Mark Streit in the gym here every day, he's progressing well. It's just good to see those guys coming back because they're a big part of our team."

DiPietro's comeback is expected to be a boost for a team that will face the Sabres three times in nine days. He entered Saturday's game just 6-6-4 with a 3.46 goals-against average and .889 save percentage, but he was improving before the groin strain. He'd won his previous three decisions and allowed only four goals in the process.

"You've got to give a lot of credit to the team and their ability to play," said DiPietro, who is in the fifth year of a 15-year contract that pays him $4.5 million annually. "We've made little tweaks to our system. Our D-zone has been better. I can't say enough about our defensemen blocking shots and clearing the front of the net. I think in the last couple months we're a team that's getting a lot more confidence."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com