Teppo Numminen is skating and practicing with the Buffalo Sabres and will return to their lineup before February, according to NHL sources.


The Sabres can't wait. Numminen has been has been conspicuous by his absence this season. The 39-year-old Finn has, despite heart disease, managed to appear in more games -- 1,314 -- than any European player in league history. After signing a one-year, $2.6-million contract with the Sabres in the summer, the veteran defenceman was all set for his 19th NHL season when he was stunned during a routine medical checkup at training camp by a diagnosis that he was in dire need of immediate open-heart surgery.


Numminen was born with a heart murmur and had to miss a handful of games in 2004 and 2006 because of a dilated aorta, but he was told at that time that he wouldn't need surgery until he was in his late 40s or early 50s. During training camp this season, however, doctors discovered a faulty valve and decided surgery could not wait.


Now, after four months of inactivity, Numminen is nearly ready to rejoin the Sabres, according to the aforementioned sources.


•Also set to return fairly soon is forward Kirk Maltby of the Detroit Red Wings.

Maltby has been out of the Wings' lineup with a back strain since Nov. 27.

"I'd like to get into a game definitely in the next two weeks," Maltby said. "As long as we don't have any setbacks, that's the game plan. Now it's a matter of getting the lungs into game shape and the only way to do that is to get into games.''

•I wrote in one of my recent blogs at www.freemyteam.com that, when I was a kid in the 1970s and 1980s, Bruce Boudreau was one of my favourite players to watch because of his uncanny offensive ability.

It was his lack of defensive skills that prevented him from having much of a career in the NHL.

Now, as he enjoys life in the NHL as the new coach of the high-flying Washington Capitals, Boudreau stresses a defensive approach.

“The way I played, I wasn’t a complete player and I’m hitting myself in the head for not being one because I could have played 15 years in the NHL instead of parts of seven or eight seasons,” Boudreau said.

“When you become a coach, it’s amazing how important it is for everyone to play both ends. You have to defend to be successful.”

Boudreau's aggressive approach has been working. The Capitals entered Thursday night seeking to record a point in six consecutive games for the first time in almost two years.

When Boudreau was hired to replace Glen Hanlon as Washington's coach on Nov. 22, the Capitals were 6-14-1 and their 13 points were the fewest in the NHL. Under Boudreau, Washington is back in playoff contention.

"I think we're really starting to believe that we're a good hockey team," goalie Olaf Kolzig said. "We dug ourselves such a big hole at the beginning of the season but we're just slowly but surely creeping our way back into things."

Boudreau may be stressing defence, but the Caps scored 14 goals in back-to-back upset wins over the Ottawa Senators.

"The guys are starting to believe a little bit in themselves, which is really good," Boudreau said. "You look, not necessarily at our record, but at the fact that (when) other teams are scoring first we don't hang our heads, we just say ... we're going to score two or three."

•By almost all accounts, the outdoor game between the Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins in Buffalo on New Year's Day was successful, and the NHL is looking to schedule more in the future.

The league received mid-season exposure like never before, with 240 accredited media on hand and the highest television ratings in the United States for the NHL since 1996.

"We'll certainly be looking at doing more outdoor games in the future," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "We were delighted by the success of the game in Buffalo."

Of course, with each outdoor game, the novelty will wear off and the bloom will come off the rose. Bettman appears to be aware of that, which is why there won't be more than a couple of outdoor games a season, at most.