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Connolly (hip) out indefinitely; Afinogenov (groin) could return by end of week

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 center
can return because Connolly has not practiced 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 and 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 spiraling 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 postseason
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's not 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 offense.

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 traveled 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.