Michael Funk is trying to make the most of an opportunity. With both Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman missing from the Buffalo Sabres lineup, the rookie from Abbotsford, B.C., was recalled from the Rochester Americans on Friday, November 17 to assist in filling the void.
Before his first NHL start, last Saturday night against the Ottawa Senators, Funk had played only 12 professional games for the Amerks, registering an assist, 12 penalty minutes and a plus-six rating in that span.
"You want to come in and make an impact and help out where you can on the ice," said Funk. "That's a pretty hard thing with Tallinder and Lydman out of the lineup. They are two great defensemen and it's pretty hard to fill shoes like that."
In Buffalo's 7-2 roasting of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night, Funk played his most minutes yet - 9:23 - and recorded the first point of his NHL career, an assist on Jaroslav Spacek's goal in the second period.
Funk's greatest challenge has been eliminating his thought process when handing the puck. It's a skill that can only be learned with experience and a problem that is compounded by the speed of the game.
"The game is so much faster," Funk said. "You don't have any time to make decisions. You have to get your head up and move the puck very quickly. Hopefully every game that I play, I can improve in that aspect."
Funk saw more than six minutes of ice time in Buffalo's 4-1 loss to Ottawa, including a shift on the penalty kill. He finished that game credited with one hit and a blocked shot.
"I don't think [the game] ever gets easier," said Funk. "I think your play just picks up. You have to be more intense and into the game, so that's what makes it seem easier. For me, it's still pretty hard to play every game."
Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff knows a thing or two about playing defense at the National Hockey League level fresh out of junior hockey. In 1979-80, Ruff made Buffalo's roster one-year removed from the Lethbridge Broncos of the Western Hockey League. He went on to appear in 63 games that season before being named the team's rookie of the year.
Much like Ruff, Funk appeared in 70 games for the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL last season and is getting an opportunity to make an impression on the Sabres at a young age.
According to Ruff, the 20-year-old defenseman can make the bigger impact on the team by just making the easy plays and not getting fancy.
"We obviously want them to learn in practice. But when they get on the ice and in different situations during the game, we want them to just keep things simple," said Ruff. "Mike Funk played a little bit more than Mike Card, and we expect to him to keep playing more.
"[Funk] has shown a little bit more maturity than some of the other guys and we anticipate him to get better."
Added Funk: "Anybody who gets the call up would like to take what ice time they get and run with it. I just want to keep playing to the best of my ability and keep improving each game."
LYDMAN SKATES, NO TIMETABLE FOR HIS RETURN Funk's window with the Sabres may be slowly closing, although nothing concrete has been determined. Defenseman Toni Lydman skated during Buffalo's pre-game workout on Monday for the first time since suffering a neck injury against the Philadelphia Flyers and is showing signs of progressing.
"I don't know if we know how close he is [to returning], but it's good to see him out there," said Ruff concerning Lydman. "He's gone through different tests and is working off ice. To get him out skating is good, but there is no timetable for him right now."