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Buffalo Sabres ho-hum after clinching Eastern Conference title

Players pass the black-and-white picture every time they hit the ice. That's why there was little fanfare after practice Wednesday, a day after Buffalo clinched its first Eastern Conference regular season title in 27 years and first Northwest Division title since 1997.

Forward Jochen Hecht lumped those accomplishments together as "little things."

"Everything we do now really doesn't matter," Hecht said. "We're focused. We've accomplished a little thing with winning the conference. But it's not our main goal."

So don't bother asking the eight-year veteran how he feels about being one goal shy of his first 20-goal season, or the fact that the Sabres have a chance of winning the Presidents' Trophy, awarded to the team that finishes first in the NHL standings - something Buffalo has never done.

"It's a nice trophy to win," said Hecht, whose Sabres trail West-leading Detroit by a point for the league lead. "And our main goal is the Stanley Cup."

It's a realistic goal for a team that returned mostly intact this season with an inflated payroll that nudged against the US$44-million NHL salary cap. Buffalo reached the East finals a year ago before losing Game 7 to Carolina, the eventual champion.

The Sabres (51-21-7) plan to use their last three games of the regular season as a tuneup for next week's opening of the postseason. After closing its home schedule against Boston on Thursday, Buffalo ends its season with games at Washington and Philadelphia this weekend.

Coach Lindy Ruff is using this final week as a mini playoff, which began with an efficient 4-1 win at Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

Ruff was impressed that the Sabres limited the Sidney Crosby-led opponents to 23 shots - including a mere 13 through 40 minutes - and negated all eight Penguins' power-play chances.

"Our determination, I thought, in a lot of situations was greater than theirs," Ruff said. "And I thought in a lot of situations we imposed our will over theirs. That was the message we wanted to send."

In October, the Sabres won their first 10 games to match a league record. A month later, they became the fourth team in league history to win 20 of their first 25.

The Sabres offence leads the league with 299 goals. Their defence is backed by goaltender Ryan Miller, who has won 38 games to match a team record.

Buffalo's longest skid was an 0-3-1 stretch last month, which they erased by going 8-2-1 since. The team also rebounded from a three-game losing streak in January to go 11-2-1 in its next 14.

"Obviously, come playoff time, we don't want those stretches. We want to be at our peak," forward Jason Pominville said. "We want to be confident come the playoffs. And winning games is one way to be confident."

The Sabres are getting healthier, too.

Right-winger Maxim Afinogenov could be back as early as Thursday's game after missing 21 games with a broken wrist. Center Tim Connolly has resumed practising and could be used initially as a power-play specialist. Connolly has not played since sustaining a concussion during the playoffs last May; he broke a bone below his knee in February.

Buffalo could open the playoffs minus only one regular, forward Paul Gaustad, who isn't expected back this season after having surgery to repair a sliced tendon in his left leg.



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