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Marty Who?

Biron watch silenced after Lalime's stellar play

For all the hand-wringing and consternation going on around Sabres Nation, things really aren’t all that bad as the team hit the season halfway point this past Sunday.

Consider this—56 points, which puts them on pace to take a run for the President’s Trophy. A healthy lead in the Northeast Division, and good point separation between the Sabres and the teams in the “have not” category.

Yes, problems remain: The “big six” scorers aren’t scoring. Defensemen aren’t chiming in with timely goals of their own. But one of the glaring issues surrounding the team—depth at the goaltending position—seems to have been quelled. For now.

Backup goaltender Patrick Lalime has been absolutely solid in his four recent appearances in net. His last game in goal, coming in relief of Ryan Miller in the Pittsburgh game, after Miller was pulled with the Sabres down 3-0, could have been his best game yet in a Buffalo uniform.

Lalime stopped all 27 shots he faced from the high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins. Meantime, the Sabres chipped away at what seemed like an insurmountable deficit. Drew Stafford scored on a penalty shot, then added another. Buffalo took the lead for good midway through the third period, and from there the team’s scrappy defense and Lalime between the pipes took over, and the Sabres made their statement: They can hang with the big boys on any given night.

“I’m just glad to get in my rhythm and contribute,” said Lalime after the Pittsburgh game. “Sometimes it takes a change midway through a game to get the guys going, and tonight it was a total team effort. I was glad to be able to contribute.”

The Sabres will need that contribution from Lalime if the team is to have the same success in the second half. Following this weekend, the team will embark on a two-and-a-half-week road trip, playing seven games across the continent before returning home on January 27. Lalime is expected to be part of the goaltending rotation. “We’ve got him on a schedule,” said coach Lindy Ruff. Then in February, the NHL goes on hiatus for the Winter Olympics break, and Ryan Miller will most likely be doing the heavy lifting as the starting goalie for Team USA.

Will carrying the load for the Sabres and meeting the lofty expectations for the US team become too much for Miller as the Sabres hit the stretch run later this season? “All I can do is mentally prepare as best I can when the coach calls on me. It should be fine,” Miller replied.

One coach who will not be calling on Miller come Olympics time will be Lindy Ruff, who will be behind the bench as an assistant with Team Canada once the games commence in Vancouver. When asked what it will feel like to coach against his all-star goalie, Ruff replied, “You take it the same way the players look at it. You have to separate yourself; players are battling each other then a day later you’re sitting in the stall next to them. Sitting next to a player that you knocked the puck off them the night before. In that case it will be different and it’s a situation that he is going to embrace and I’ll embrace and we’ll be friends when it’s all over.”

Looking forward, a review of the Sabres schedule reveals certain trigger points that will dictate where this season is going. The team will play four games in six nights on the road on the upcoming West Coast swing, including against elite teams such as Phoenix (go figure), Los Angeles, and San Jose.

Then there is the matter of divisional rivals. Since the end of the lockout, Buffalo has not been able to figure out the Ottawa Senators, and the Sabres face Ottawa three more times this season. The preseason consensus to win the Northeast Division, the Boston Bruins, show up on the schedule four more times, twice at home and twice in Boston.

“We should be up to the task,” said forward Mike Grier. “We’ve shown we can skate with any team on any given night if everyone is playing. Every point is crucial. It will be a dogfight right to the last day of the season.”

Taro Sez...

• Here is Team USA’s hockey schedule at the Olympics: Tuesday, February 16, 3pm—Switzerland; Thursday, February 18, 3pm—Norway, and Sunday, February 21, 7:40pm—Canada. (All times EST.) The medal round begins Wednesday, February 24, culminating in the gold medal game on Monday, February 28 at 3:15pm.

• The youngest member of the Team USA squad will be Buffalo’s own Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks. Western New York native Brooks Orpik of the Pittsburgh Penguins will also play for Team USA.

• Say it ain’t so! Underused defenseman and utility player Nathan Paetsch was placed on waivers this past Monday. As of noon Tuesday, no team claimed him, so Paetsch will remain in the organization, either playing with the AHL Portland Pirates or enjoying the pressbox grub at HSBC Arena.

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