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Thomas Vanek back to help slumping Buffalo Sabres

BUFFALO, N.Y. - The Buffalo Sabres aren't panicking after a rough run of losses, but they'll be happy to get leading goal scorer Thomas Vanek back on the ice to take some stress off a struggling offence.

Vanek, who's missed the past nine games because of a broken jaw, is slated to make his return on Wednesday when the slumping Sabres host the Montreal Canadiens. It's just in time for a Sabres team that has lost four of their last five while scoring just 10 goals, including notching a mere three scores during their current three-game skid.

"It's always tough to watch the team, and especially when they're not winning it makes it even tougher," said Vanek, who was hurt after taking Ottawa's Anton Volchenkov's slap shot to the face in a game on Feb. 7. "You hate watching your team struggle out there, so it's nice to get back and hopefully I'll be able to help out."

Vanek will almost certainly do that. He was the league's third-leading scorer with 32 goals when he got injured, and his 15 power-play goals then led the NHL.

"He's an important part of our team," winger Jason Pominville said. "Guys had to switch their roles a little bit, but now that he's back guys will move back to their comfort zone and where they're used to playing."

The Sabres were just hitting their stride when Vanek went down, winning 11 of 17 games to move into seventh place in the Eastern Conference, three points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes. But almost four weeks later, the Sabres find themselves nestled in ninth place in the East, one point behind eighth-place Pittsburgh.

Buffalo was just 3-5-1 without Vanek in the lineup.

"We needed some players to pick up the pace in Thomas' absence," coach Lindy Ruff said. "For the short term we were doing well but the last three games we didn't answer the call. That falls on my shoulders."

Maxim Afinogenov also could return on Wednesday after missing 24 games because of a groin injury.

The Sabres roster could change even more in the hours before the Canadiens' game. The NHL's trade deadline is Wednesday at 3 p.m. ET, and Buffalo does have some options if it wants to make a deal.

Slick-skating but oft-injured centre Tim Connolly may be moved, with the Columbus Blue Jackets a possible destination. Other players on the trading block include wingers Afinogenov and Ales Kotalik, as well as defenseman Henrik Tallinder.

Connolly, Afinogenov and Kotalik are set to become unrestricted free agents following the season.

Connolly has accumulated 26 points despite missing more than 30 games due to a broken rib and broken vertebra. He said over the weekend that he would like to remain in Buffalo to help with the Sabres playoff push.

Ruff, meanwhile, won't do anything different while awaiting the deadline to pass.

"I really don't get involved," he said. "I don't know the difference between addressing it and not addressing it. It's part of the game, and every player understands. Everybody hears the rumors, and 90 per cent of them aren't true."

Meanwhile, Ruff said on Tuesday after practice that injured goalie Ryan Miller is progressing, but there's still no timetable for his return. Miller sustained a high left ankle sprain against the New York Rangers on Feb. 21 when forward Scott Gomez collided with him behind the net in the third period.


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