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Leopold returns to lineup early with Sekera injured

Coach Lindy Ruff had plenty of surprises in store for the Philadelphia Flyers when the Sabres' lineup was posted for Game Three on Monday night.

The big shocker was the return of defenseman Jordan Leopold from a broken hand -- at least a week ahead of his four-week timetable when hesuffered the injury March 25 against Florida. Leopold has been skating and shooting pucks in practice for several days but told The Buffalo News on Friday in Voorhees, N.J., that he was "not even close" to ready to return until he did physical-contact drills.

But Andrej Sekera couldn't go because of another upper-body injury suffered in Game Two so Leopold took his place.

In the Sabres' dressing room Sunday, Leopold repeated his Friday answer that he wasn't really close. So what changed?

"You guys are pretty gullible," Leopold cracked to reporters after playing 14 minutes, 48 seconds in the 4-2 loss. "It was one of those things where I've been pushing myself the last little bit to be ready if something happened or they needed me. There was a timeframe but when we set that, we said I was only out the rest of the regular season."

"[Monday] morning it was official and it felt pretty good as of the last four or five days. It's just an opportunity where they needed me and I end up getting out there. It's tough to swallow when you lose but I felt pretty comfortable."

While Leopold certainly has been improving, his return had been consistently targeted as Game Six or even Game Seven. But Sekera has been struggling with an upper-body strain, and he was struck in the ribs by a slapshot Saturday in the middle of a shoddy performance that saw him on the ice for four of the Flyers' five goals.

"Obviously he couldn't play. We knew that going into the game when we left Philly," Ruff said. "So we kind of got into a hurry-up mode with Jordan. For his situation, I thought he did well."

"If I wasn't able to move pucks, shoot pucks and pass pucks, obviously I wouldn't be out there," Leopold said. "Whatever I'm called upon for, I'm ready for that situation."

Leopold was pleased that his hand and wrist held up well but was fretting that he lost coverage on the Flyers' third goal.

"It's been a good three weeks since I've been out there and I know I made a couple mental mistakes on the third goal and I can take responsibility for that," he said. "That's part of hockey but we go forward from here, bury this one."

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The Sabres have likely lost Patrick Kaleta after he crashed into the boards in the first period and left with what the team termed an upper-body injury. He played just 2:26 in the game. Mark Mancari, who was called back on emergency recall, is here to play in Game Four.

Mancari and defenseman Dennis Persson were sent back to Portland on Sunday -- and then called back on another emergency recall Monday. Shaone Morrisonn and Jochen Hecht are both still not skating.

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Marc-Andre Gragnani led the Sabres in ice time at 23:51 and assisted on both Buffalo goals. Gragnani's four points lead all NHL rookies in the playoffs and his four assists are tied for the NHL lead with Vancouver's Henrik

Sedin and Anaheim's Corey Perry.

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In addition to going with Game Two winner Brian Boucher in goal, the Flyers relegated Sergei Bobrovsky to the No. 3 slot and didn't even dress him for Game Three. Michael Leighton, who backstopped them to the Stanley Cup finals last year but spent most of the year in the minors this season after back surgery, served as the backup.

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Following the morning skate, Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren harshly criticized a Philadelphia television report that said injured defenseman Chris Pronger suffered a second broken bone in his hand recently and had another surgery to insert a plate in the hand.

"It seems people can throw anything they want at the wall and see if it sticks," Holmgren said. "Obviously, he's not coming along as fast as everyone thought at the time the initial injury happened. It is what it is. When he feels like he can play, he'll play."

Asked if Pronger will return in this series, Holmgren simply said, "He's day to day so we'll see."

Pronger, who won't be made available to the media until he's ready to play, sat out Monday and probably won't play in Game Four either. But he did appear to make progress Monday, skating with the team for the first time and even shooting a few pucks.

"Prongs looks good on the ice," said coach Peter Laviolette. "He's been skating for a while so his skating is good. He moved the puck around and was involved in our drill. That's the first time that he's been out there with us."

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The Flyers' 25 road wins during the regular season were the most in franchise history, which dates to 1967. The Flyers are 6-0-2 in their last eight games in HSBC Arena and have not lost in regulation here since 2007. The Sabres are 3-7 all time in series in which they split the first two games on the road. They are 3-2 when winning the first game back at home -- but 0-5 when dropping into a 2-1 hole.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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