Since Pascal Leclaire last manned the crease for the Columbus Blue Jackets, coach Ken Hitchcock's club has turned around its slow start by earning at least a point in six of eight games.
But coming off a disappointing effort in defeat, the Blue Jackets are hoping a healthy Leclaire will provide a boost on Friday night when the team visits the Buffalo Sabres.
Leclaire was second in the NHL with nine shutouts last season, when he compiled a career-best 2.25 goals-against average, but things didn't go as well for him to start 2008-09. He was 3-3-0 with a 3.41 GAA in his first seven starts before an ankle injury forced him to spend seven games on injured reserve.
The Blue Jackets (7-7-2) fell to 3-5-0 the night of his injury, but even though backup Fredrik Norrena also went down with a groin injury, Columbus won three straight games for the first time this season from Nov. 5-8 with rookie Steve Mason in net each time.
Leclaire was activated on Wednesday, but Mason got the start and finally took his first career loss, as the Blue Jackets' winning streak ended with a 5-2 home defeat against Phoenix.
Hitchcock was upset with his team's effort in the loss, overshadowing the facts that Columbus ended an 0-for-20 skid on the power play and Rick Nash scored after going nine straight games without a goal - the second-longest such streak of his career.
"We had the wrong attitude towards the level of competition," Hitchcock said. "We tried to cheat the game and you can't cheat the game."
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Leclaire's potential return could help, and the goalie will be eager to get back on the ice - especially after his performance at HSBC Arena last season. In Columbus' 3-0 win over the Sabres, he stopped 21 shots last Oct. 19 for his third shutout in four games to start the 2007-08 campaign.
The Sabres (9-3-3) have looked a bit different in the early going this season, however. After missing the playoffs last spring, Buffalo responded with a strong start, earning at least a point in the first eight games.
Coach Lindy Ruff's team has cooled off a bit recently, but is still coming off a 4-3 home win over St. Louis on Wednesday. The Sabres jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first six minutes and held on late thanks to 30 saves from Ryan Miller.
"We got the start we wanted, and we had plenty of scoring chances," Buffalo forward Jason Pominville said. "We could have easily scored a few more."
With the Sabres in the midst of a four-day stretch with three games, it's possible backup Patrick Lalime could get the start on Friday in place of Miller, who has played six straight games.
Lalime hasn't played since Oct. 27 and hasn't won since Oct. 13, when he earned his only victory in three starts this season. He's 7-3-0 with a 2.64 GAA in his career against Columbus, including a 6-3 win in his last appearance against them on March 14 while with Chicago.
Miller, on the other hand, hasn't beaten the Blue Jackets since Nov. 22, 2002, losing his last two starts against them. As a team, the Sabres have only two wins in eight games all-time versus Columbus.