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Sabres preparing to take a 1-2 punch

Patrick Kaleta looked at the Sabres' weekend plans and immediately knew what he had to do.

"I might have to go in the weight room here and do a couple extra reps," Kaleta said Thursday.

That was not a bad idea. The Sabres will need all the strength they can muster.

The Sabres host Boston tonight in First Niagara Center and visit the New York Rangers on Saturday. The Bruins are second in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers are first. Obviously, it doesn't get much tougher for a Buffalo team trying to surge into the playoff race.

"Both teams, it's a good test for us," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "It will tell us where we're at."

The Sabres, in last place in the conference as recently as last weekend, feel they're headed back to contention. They are 2-0-1 in the last three games and 7-3-2 in the last 12. They have pulled within eight points of the final playoff spot with 22 games to go.

"We've been playing our game and playing extremely well, solid defensively, cut our goals against way down over the last 12 games here," defenseman Mike Weber said. "It's just another huge test for our team. We've put ourselves into a position now where we've got to some life, and we've battled ourselves back to a situation where every point counts. We can still do this."

The Sabres have indeed played better defensively during their past dozen games. Buffalo has allowed 2.87 goals per game this season, 21st in the NHL, but that average has dropped thanks to their goals against of 2.17 during the 12-game run.

Included in that surge is a 6-0 shutout of Boston on Feb. 8.

"We played Boston extremely well last time," Weber said. "The biggest thing that's changed lately is our consistency."

Ryan Miller has also played a role. The goaltender has a 1.85 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in his last 12 appearances. He was 11-15-2 with a 3.15 GAA and .897 save percentage entering his 2-1 shootout victory over New Jersey on Jan. 24. His numbers entering tonight are 18-17-4 with a 2.75 and .908.

"Lately you see Millsie getting the big save, letting you know he's in the game, he's back into form," Weber said. "When you've got an elite goaltender like Ryan Miller going it puts everyone's confidence level at a new height. That gives everyone a little boost. When he's going, I think our team's going. I think that's what you've seen lately."

Miller and the Sabres' shutdown unit of forwards Nathan Gerbe, Paul Gaustad and Kaleta, with defensemen Robyn Regehr and Andrej Sekera, will need to be at its best this weekend. The Bruins are second in scoring in the NHL at 3.22 goals per game. New York, which boasts forwards Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, is 12th at 2.72.

"It's a good challenge for us, a good test, too," Sekera said. "It makes you a better hockey player when you play against better guys. You've got to make sure when you get on the ice against them you think defense first. You make sure nobody's cheating behind you, then jump in the play and create opportunities to punish those lines."

The Bruins haven't forgotten the punishment they absorbed during their last trip to Buffalo. The six-goal setback was the worst of the year for a team that's just 5-7 in its last 12 games.

"They have a real good team, especially when they're all playing together and working hard," Bruins forward Brad Marchand said. "They seem to get up when they're playing us, and the last three games have been very good battles. They really owned us last time, so we have to be prepared."

email: jvogl@buffnews.com