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Former Buffalo Sabres left winger Thomas Vanek (Associated Press)

Former Buffalo Sabres left winger Thomas Vanek

(Associated Press)

Duhatschek: Vanek deal shows Islanders believe they are playoff contenders and more Add to ...

THE SCHEDULING GAME: Also on tap Monday: Lindy Ruff returns to Buffalo with his new team, the Dallas Stars, to play the struggling Sabres, a team he coached for 15 years. Ruff’s Stars did not exactly race out of the starting gate either, with defenceman Sergei Gonchar off to a slow scoring start. Gonchar was on an expiring contract, but joined Dallas when they made a deal for his playing rights with the Ottawa Senators, in the hopes that he could anchor the power play and perhaps act as a mentor for Russian rookie Valeri Nichushkin. Gonchar performed a similar role earlier in his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Evgeni Malkin. But while Malkin was an instant hit in Pittsburgh – 85 points in 78 games in his rookie season – Nichushkin has been slow adjusting to life in the NHL and has just one assist in nine games. Defensively, the Stars have also made Alex Goligoski a healthy scratch this season. Goligoski was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins for James Neal and Matt Niskanen back in 2011. Neal had 61 goals in 120 games over the past two seasons, mostly playing with Malkin, although he remains sidelined this year because of injury ... The Sabres played consecutive games with four teenagers in the lineup this past weekend, the first time since 1996 that’s happened. The quartet is all European, which may make the adjustment to the NHL even more difficult for Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov. Zadorov could still be returned to the London Knights since his nine-game trial is not up yet.

AND FINALLY: Not only did Bryan Bickell’s breakout scoring performance during last year’s playoffs on behalf of the Chicago Blackhawks help them win the Stanley Cup, it also convinced the organization to sign the pending unrestricted free agent to a contract extension, a deal that subsequently made both Dave Bolland and Michel Frolik expendable for salary-cap considerations. Bickell responded to the new deal with a slow start, failing to score in each of his first seven games, but then scored goals in four consecutive games to get his season righted. Of course, the team that landed Bolland in the fire sale, the one that’s tripping through Western Canada this week, is pretty happy about the Blackhawks’ decision to go with Bickell too. The Leaf trip starts in Edmonton Tuesday, where they’ll run into an Oilers’ team coached by Dallas Eakins, formerly the bench boss of Toronto’s AHL affiliate, the Marlies, in a reunion of sorts. A handful of Eakins’s former minor leaguers, including Nazem Kadri are in the NHL now, helping the Leafs get off to an 8-4 start.

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