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With deadline over, Sabres turn attention to Coyotes

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

With three losses coming out of the bye week, Cody Franson said he had been preparing himself for the worst prior to Wednesday's trade deadline. His wife, he said, may have been more on edge than he was; her attention was drawn every time his cell phone buzzed in the afternoon.

But, once 3 p.m. came around, nothing had happened - not only in regards to Franson, but to the Sabres in general. A quiet deadline day around the NHL ended with all four of Buffalo's unrestricted free agents - Franson, Dmitry Kulikov, Brian Gionta and Anders Nilsson - still in place.

Video: Preview: ARI at BUF (3/2/17)

"Yesterday was a little bit of a stressful day, there's no way around that," Franson said following Buffalo's morning skate on Thursday. "I'm very happy with the turn out. I enjoy it here, I like it here, I'd like to remain here so when I didn't get the call I was happy."

Sabres general manager Tim Murray said he received calls on Franson, Kulikov and Gionta, but ultimately no deal could be made. He also spoke of a conversation he had with Gionta after receiving one such call, a gesture he made out of respect to the captain of the team and a long-time veteran.

It was the kind of gesture, Gionta said, that can go a long way in terms of how outside players view the organization.

"I think that's what we're trying to build here, is a place that people want to come to, a place that's on the rise and that has that stability," Gionta said. "I think we're trying to get into a position to be a winning team and by no means has anyone given up on this season. It's an uphill battle, but there's still a possibility for us to make the playoffs here."

With the full team still intact, the attention now turns to a home game against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night. Buffalo led 2-0 in the third period in Arizona on Sunday, only to fall 3-2 on Radim Vrbata's game-winning goal in the game's final seconds. 

The Sabres again squandered a two-goal, third-period lead in their last game, a 5-4 overtime loss to the Nashville Predators at home on Tuesday. With the losses, Buffalo sits six points back from Toronto in the wild card race.

"Those are games that we feel like we needed to have," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "Our discussions, they're painful discussions because they were painful results from our team and our players. That's the process we're in. We want to win hockey games. We want to win tonight and see what four points back feels like."

Video: BYLSMA: Pregame Interview vs. ARI

Franson said the reason he wanted to stay in Buffalo is because he truly likes the direction of the team; a bit of fine-tuning, he says, can take the Sabres to another level.

Now, the same room full of players that lost the last four games has the chance to prove that.

"I think that's what we're living on right now," Franson said. "We're on the outside looking in, but at the same time we're not out of it right now. Like I said, we're trying to fine-tune our game, become more consistent and play with the high-quality teams."

"We think we've got to make the playoffs," forward Tyler Ennis added. "We think we're six points out, we've got to put it behind us. We've got to learn from it. Obviously it's unacceptable, what's happened the last few games, blowing leads. There's a great opportunity for us tonight to correct some things and win a game."

Robin Lehner will start in net for the Sabres. Mike Smith is expected to get the nod for Arizona.

Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with the Tops Pregame Show on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops between the Sabres and Coyotes at 7 p.m.


Sabres looking for more from Kulikov

Kulikov has said himself that he doesn't believe he's been able to show what he's capable of after battling a lower-back injury for much of this season, and Bylsma reiterated that the Sabres need more from the defenseman going forward. 

"Going to the last few games up to yesterday and having a discussion with him today, obviously post-deadline, he's a guy who needs to play better," Bylsma said. "He needs himself to play better and potentially, yes, could come out of the lineup if he doesn't find his game here in the last 19 games."


Projected lineup

One guy who isn't set to become a UFA at the end of this season and yet admitted he was nervous on Wednesday was Ennis. He's been playing on the fourth line as of late, so he was asked if he would have welcomed the opportunity for a fresh start had he been traded.

"I'm a Buffalo Sabre," Ennis responded. "I love this place and all I want to do is win a championship for this city."

He'll have a greater chance to contribute on Thursday. After liking his play in recent games, Bylsma promoted Ennis to the top line alongside O'Reilly and Okposo for the game against Arizona.

"I think, coming back from his injury, Tyler's first five, six, seven, eight games coming back, he needed to be better," Bylsma said. "He needed to get to where his game is good and what he can do. I think, recently, he has been."

Here's how the full lineup is expected to look against the Coyotes:

63 Tyler Ennis - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
82 Marcus Foligno - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
9 Evander Kane - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 12 Brian Gionta
26 Matt Moulson - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 56 Justin Bailey

29 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
77 Dmitry Kulikov - 47 Zach Bogosian
4 Josh Gorges - 6 Cody Franson

40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson

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