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With Hecht back, Ruff will be forward thinking

Center Jochen Hecht is getting close to returning to the Buffalo Sabres' lineup. Hecht probably won't play tonight when the Florida Panthers come to HSBC Arena but could be in the lineup for Saturday's game against New Jersey.

Hecht's return begs a question: Who comes out when he goes in?

The Sabres' corps of forwards is as strong as it's been at any point all season. Coach Lindy Ruff normally doesn't like to upset a winning lineup and Buffalo is 2-0-1 in its last three games. Going back deeper into the schedule, the Sabres are 5-2-1 during Hecht's two absences this month with an upper-body injury.

"You've got four lines that are producing," Ruff said after practice Thursday morning in the Northtown Center at Amherst. "On different nights you're getting plays that make a difference in the game."

"The top six or seven on this team has potential to score 20 goals a year," said Hecht, who has 12 goals and 28 points in 65 games. "I'm not surprised how it's been going. It's just a matter of time of everybody getting the confidence."

At first glance, recent emergency callup Mark Mancari would seem to the most vulnerable. But Ruff discounted that prospect Thursday because of the way Mancari has meshed with Paul Gaustad and the red-hot Nathan Gerbe.

"You can argue recently that maybe they've been our best line," Ruff said. "We're not going to mess with that obviously. When that time comes, we'll make a decision. We may just try to utilize all of them. It just won't be one guy that has to sit."

Ruff, in fact, said the Sabres would discuss changing Mancari's status from an emergency recall to a regular recall. This is Mancari's second trip to the NHL this season, and he had no points in his first four games after joining the team March 6 in Minnesota. In five games since, Mancari has a goal, four assists and a plus-4 rating.

Hecht, meanwhile, went through his first full hard practice and reported no issues.

"Everything went fine. Contact was no problem," Hecht said. "It's looking good. [Tonight] might be cutting it a little bit close because I had not skated for two weeks but Saturday is definitely an option."

The Sabres enter tonight's game with a three-point lead over Carolina for the final Eastern Conference playoff slot. The Hurricanes play at Tampa Bay.

The Sabres are just 1-2 against Florida this year and have been outscored, 7-0, in the first period of the three meetings. Depleted by a selloff at the trade deadline, the Panthers have been shut out in their last two games (at the New York Rangers and Chicago) and have not scored in 131 minutes, 34 seconds. Florida is 3-8-1 in March.
"They've got nothing to lose," Hecht said. "They're just going to play, trying to impress the coaches and the GM. Those are dangerous teams."

***

Patrick Kaleta is still not practicing because of his severe bone bruise to the knee. But the Angola native earned some notice this week as the No. 2 most hated player in the NHL in a blog written by Adam Proteau of the Hockey News.

Wrote Proteau: "If Kaleta found himself on fire, the only way most fans and players would try to "help" would be to pour gasoline and fireworks on it."

Noted agitators Sean Avery (3) and Chris Neil (9) were ranked behind Kaleta.

No. 1 on the list was Matt Cooke of the Penguins, who earned a suspension of at least 14 games from the NHL on Monday.

"Every team has guys everybody hates. It's the level of hate," Ruff said. "Pat is a hard hitter. He's one of those guys that fits that category of you have to keep your head up when you're on the ice against him. His hatred comes from the type of hits he imposes. He's had devastating hits in the past that have done a lot of damage."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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