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Ruff playing games, Roy playing Game Seven

Given a night to reconsider, Lindy Ruff reverted to the usual mind games. After Sunday's loss, Ruff had said that Derek Roy would be returning to the lineup for Game Seven. "He's got to be ready," he said.

But come Monday morning, Ruff was back in full playoff coach mode. When pressed for information, provide as little as possible. If someone asks if the sky is blue, go with green. If there's a sliver of doubt about a player's health, plead ignorance.

"I don't even know if he's playing yet," Ruff said when asked what he expected from Roy tonight. "So I don't know what to expect."

But you said Sunday he was playing, someone reminded the coach. "Well, I was hopeful," Ruff said. "But I don't know. We'll see."

He might as well keep the Flyers guessing, for what that's worth. I doubt Peter Laviolette lost sleep over the matter. Ruff can play coy all he likes. Roy is playing tonight. The veteran center is coming back from a four-month quad injury, just in time to help his injury-riddled team in Game Seven of a Stanley Cup series.

Even the most hardy fan might be losing faith after watching the Sabres lose a potential clinching Game Six, along with center Tim Connolly. It has to stir painful memories of the 2006 conference finals, when they were down four of their top six defensemen for Game Seven against Carolina.

If you're looking for any sign of hope, how about this: Heading into that seventh game in '06, the Sabres lost defenseman Jay McKee to a leg infection. Tonight, in their first Game Seven since that deciding game, they will be getting Roy back.

So maybe this is the hockey gods' way of making amends for that freakish run of injuries to Buffalo's defensemen five years ago. They might get Jochen Hecht back, too.

The timing for Roy's return couldn't be better, that's for sure. It's hard to say how effective he'll be after four months on the shelf. But the Sabres are perilously thin up front. During the crucial moments of Game Six, their three centers were Rob Niedermayer, Paul Gaustad and Matt Ellis.

Roy was targeted to return tonight even if Connolly hadn't been injured. He said he's 100 percent. He's their No. 1 center. He was their leading scorer when he went down Dec. 23. They can really use him. And to think, it had become fashionable to suggest the Sabres were better off without him.

"I didn't hear that," Roy said. "Thanks for bringing it up, though. They played well. I give them credit for all the work they put in throughout the season. I want to thank them for giving me the chance to play again. They worked extremely hard for themselves to be in this position, and I'm going to go out and work hard for them."

Before suffering a torn quad tendon in his left leg, Roy had 35 points in 35 games. He was fourth among NHL centers in assists behind Henrik Sedin, Sidney Crosby and Pavel Datsyuk. He was in the best shape of his career and having his finest season. An alternate captain, Roy was maturing into a team leader at 27.

The Sabres hit their stride and began their surge to the playoffs when Roy left the lineup. The chemistry seemed greater. Thomas Vanek came alive. The record says they were better without him. But the events were mutually exclusive. It's ludicrous to suggest that Roy was somehow holding them back.

"Everything wasn't right with our team in the first half," said Nathan Gerbe. "We found a way to regroup. Derek stuck with us. He's here every game, supporting us, telling us what we can work on. I know he talks to me and lets me knows things I can do to get better. So he's been a supporter of us ever since he was hurt."

Now Roy gets a chance to help the Sabres do something they've never done -- win a Game Seven on the road.

Roy said he'll cherish the moment. It's not easy for a pro athlete to accept the idea that his season is finished before it's even half done. All along, he held out hope he could return in the playoffs.

"It was tough," Roy said. "Right off the bat, the doctor poked around and said, 'All right. Surgery and you're done.' To them, it's just another patient. To us, it's a lifestyle. This is what we love to do. When someone says you can't do something, it's definitely difficult. But right now, I'm back, I'm ready, and what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I'm mentally stronger from this, and I'm going to move forward.

"I wouldn't play if I wasn't 100 percent," he said. "We were waiting for the right moment. All this work paid off. I came in every morning -- first in and last out. It's been a long road, but it's been a good journey."

The Sabres have been on a remarkable journey for the past four months. Now Roy gets to be part of it, and to ride the wave of renewed optimism that has swept through the Sabre Nation since Terry Pegula took over the team in February.

They're in a tough spot now. They had a chance to close it out and let it get away. Now a battered Sabres team has to rise up one more time, in a Game Seven. Circumstances are conspiring against them, same as five years ago in Carolina.

"Yeah, but we wrote a different script to this one," Ruff said. "We've got a fairy tale ending to this one."

Derek scores the winner, right?

"That's right," Ruff said. "I wonder where you got that one from."

I don't know about fairy tales. But it sounds like Roy is playing. The way this season has gone, I wouldn't rule anything out.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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