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Slumping Sabres still without injured forwards Connolly, Afinogenov

BUFFALO, N.Y. - If the slumping Buffalo Sabres intend to make a late-season playoff push, they'll have to start it without injured forwards Tim Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov.

Connolly, who's missed six games, remains out indefinitely after tests revealed he has a bone spur in his hip, coach Lindy Ruff said Monday after the team returned for its first practice following the NHL all-star break. The injury is more severe than initially expected after Connolly was first diagnosed as having a groin strain.

Ruff didn't provide a timetable for when the play-making centre can return because Connolly has not practised with the team since he was hurt on Jan. 8. Even once he does come back, Connolly will have to play with pain, and will likely require surgery after the season.

Connolly has been in and out of the lineup this season, but is still tied for fifth on the team with 29 points (five goals, 24 assists) in 34 games.

Afinogenov, who's missed 10 games, has begun skating on his own and could be back by the end of this week after tests revealed he has a slight groin tear, Ruff said.

Afinogenov, a two-time 20-goal scorer, has struggled for most of the season, and has seven goals and 11 assists in 38 games.

Their continued absence is not good news for a spiralling Sabres team that plays at Tampa Bay on Tuesday to resume a seven-game road trip that began with three away games last week. Buffalo is coming off a 2-1 win at Dallas on Thursday, which marked the Sabres' second win in their past 14 games (2-7-5).

With 34 games left, the defending Presidents' Trophy winners (21-21-6) are 13th in the Eastern Conference, six points out of playoff contention, and are one loss short of matching last season's total.

By Ruff's estimation, the Sabres will have to be among the East's top teams down the stretch to contend for a post-season berth.

"There's no getting around it. We've put ourselves in a tough spot," Ruff said. "We're going to have to be probably one of the top three teams in the East now."

Trouble is, the Sabres haven't played anywhere near that level.

Buffalo hasn't won consecutive games since capping a six-game win streak with a 6-5 shootout victory at Philadelphia on Dec. 22. And the Sabres are suddenly having difficulty generating offence.

They've scored 32 goals in their past 14 games, including a 10-1 win over Atlanta, a stretch in which they've produced three or more goals only three times. Buffalo's power play is struggling, having converted 5-for-52 chances during that stretch.

The chances are there - Buffalo has outshot seven of its past 14 opponents. But the goals aren't coming.

"If the chances-for were way down and we weren't getting them, you'd really be worried about it," Ruff said. "It's just the finish."

Derek Roy has provided a boost, having scored five goals and two assists in his past four games since returning from a shoulder injury. Roy's return has also helped Thomas Vanek, who has a goal and five assists in his past four games.

That's a considerable improvement after Vanek managed three goals and three assists in his previous 17 games.

"It's not a numbers game for me," said Vanek, who has 13 goals after scoring a career-high 43 last season. "For us it's about winning hockey games and getting this team back into the playoffs. I think we're in the race, and that's the main focus."

Enough talking, added goaltender Ryan Miller.

"It's getting close to the time where you've got to shut up and do it," Miller said. "Now we find ourselves looking at the teams in playoff positions, and we have to show some maturity and do something about it. I think we'll be fine."

Notes: C Mike Ryan has been cleared to return after missing three games with an eye injury. ... D Brian Campbell travelled directly to Tampa Bay after taking part in the all-star game Sunday at Atlanta. ... The Sabres don't return home until Feb. 6, when they face New Jersey. It will be their first home game since their win against Atlanta on Jan. 18.


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