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Stafford to return in Sabres' lineup tonight

Posted by Brendan Hall, Globe Correspondent  April 19, 2010 12:48 PM

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The Sabres are expected to be without leading goal-scorer Thomas Vanek (left leg) tonight, but head coach Lindy Ruff confirmed this afternoon following morning skate that right winger Drew Stafford (concussion) has been cleared to play, and will make his first appearance in this Stanley Cup Playoffs series tonight for game three.

Stafford, who put up 14-20-34 totals for Buffalo during the regular season, was suffered the concussion in a collision with Ottawa's Andy Sutton (of recent "are you an expert?" fame) in a 5-2 win on April 10. He had been ruled out of Saturday's 5-3 loss, but traveled with the team here to Boston. Ruff said Stafford was "80 to 90 percent" on Saturday.

"We were racking him up to play for Saturday, and the test results didn't go our way," Ruff said. "The conditioning we put him through in some of the practices, you know, contact, battle drills, so we got a little bit of a head start on that."

-- Ruff calmly stonewalled questions about Vanek's availability tonight.

"No," he said bluntly when asked if there was any update on his progress.

Asked to elaborate, Ruff replied, "Same as yesterday. No step back, but no progress."

-- To nobody's surprise, goaltender Ryan Miller has been named one of three finalists for the Vezina Trophy today, along with Phoenix's Ilya Bryzgalov and New Jersey's Martin Brodeur.

Miller, the MVP from this past February's Olympics, is the odds-on favorite to pick up his first such hardware on June 23. His goals against average (2.22) and save percentage (.929), both career bests, were outdone only by his opponent in net tonight, Boston's Tuukka Rask. He was also top five in the league in saves (third, 1,948), wins (fourth, 41) and shots faced (fourth, 2,098).

There is also chance Miller could become the first goaltender to win the Hart Trophy since Capitals netminder Jose Theodore did it for Montreal back in 2002. He'd be the first Sabre to win the Hart since the legendary Dominik Hasek won them back to back in 1997 and 1998.

Miller was deferential to his defensemen when asked about the Vezina nomination.

"It's a great honor," Miller said. "It represents a hard-fought season with my teammates, I think. It's one of things where, to be considered one of the four or five best goaltenders in the league, you've got to have guys around you that care and work hard to make the plays around you a little bit easier. I think that's been one of our most improved areas this season."

-- Following Saturday night's performance, there has been repeated talk about how much the Sabres ought to adjust their gameplan. Miller, for one, thinks the change is minimal at best.

"There's small things, clean up our zone a little bit, get rid of some of the puck control," he said. "Other than that, I mean, from my point of view, I felt like...not that the Bruins didn't work hard, but I thought that they got three or four fortunate bounces into the net. That's hockey, though. So I don't think we should look at it like we had complete breakdowns."

-- Games at the TD Garden are always a bit of a homecoming for Buffalo's Mike Grier, a Holliston native who attended St. Sebastian's and later Boston University. And with the atmosphere expected to be lively tonight, he's been dishing out pointers to the youngsters.

The craziest he's ever seen things? A Lakers-Celtics contest back at the old Garden.

"Some of the Beanpot stuff was good, but you know, mostly memories basically from basketball, from Lakers-Celtics," he said. "All the chants and everything, it was pretty crazy."

Grier, by the way, was a Lakers fan back then, and was particularly fond of Magic Johnson. He's converted this way since, though, and is a big Kevin Garnett fan.

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