All at once, the Buffalo Sabres looked a whole lot healthier when they took the ice for practice at HarborCenter on Thursday morning. Kyle Okposo, William Carrier and Dmitry Kulikov all practiced with the team for the first time since sustaining their respective injuries.
Not only that, but - barring any potential setbacks - all three players will practice again on Friday and should be ready to play when the Sabres host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
Video: Sabres in :90 (3/23/17)
Okposo was Buffalo's leading point scorer, with 43 (19+24), at the time of his rib injury on March 2. He healed quicker than he initially expected, especially considering how the first 12 days following the injury required complete inactivity. Heavy breathing put pressure on his ribs; he couldn't even pick up his kids.
For as much as Okposo was missed as an offensive presence on the ice, Dan Bylsma said the absence of his leadership was equally felt. Okposo, too, missed being a leader.
"You miss interacting. You miss being around the team," Okposo said. "There's a lot of things here that I think we can get better at and I think we need to do better so that time away, it's just frustrating because I want to grow with this team and help the team grow too."
Carrier has been out since Feb. 4 with a bone bruise in his knee, a span of 24 games. His injury was made more difficult by the fact that he had finally broken into the NHL and established himself as a regular in the lineup, even seeing time on the top line alongside Okposo and Ryan O'Reilly.
The injury to Carrier's knee originally occurred on a hit that he delivered, and he continued to play on it for a couple of weeks after. When the pain grew too much and he had to sit out, he was expecting to miss a few games at most.
About two weeks into his recovery, he started skating again. He admittedly went a bit harder than he should have, and had a setback that put him on crutches.
Video: BYLSMA: After Practice
"Probably a tough time for him having finally made it to the National Hockey League and playing on a day-to-day basis and then out of the blue you're out for a couple of months, not even knowing how long you're going to be out," Bylsma said.
Kulikov, meanwhile, has missed eight contests since leaving Buffalo's game against Tampa Bay on March 6 with a neck injury. His season had already been marred by a lower-back injury that forced him to three separate stretches of games.
With Kulikov back in the fold, the Sabres had five defensemen at practice. Brady Austin and Casey Nelson were reassigned to Rochester on Wednesday, while Cody Franson, Justin Falk and Taylor Fedun remained absent due to injury. Bylsma said there's a possibility for one of those players to return to practice on Friday and be ready to join the lineup Saturday.
In the meantime, Nicolas Deslauriers filled in at practice as the sixth defenseman. It's something he's done often this season, but don't expect to see it in a game - well, at least not at puck drop.
"It would happen in-game, for sure, if he was playing forward and we needed [him]," Bylsma said. "He certainly has practiced there and that's his natural position from years ago. So, he's more than comfortable being back there and playing there and would get some consideration possibly."
Lineup at practice
63 Tyler Ennis - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
82 Marcus Foligno - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
9 Evander Kane - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 12 Brian Gionta
48 William Carrier - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 26 Matt Moulson/52 Hudson Fasching
4 Josh Gorges - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe - 77 Dmitry Kulikov
44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 47 Zach Bogosian
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson
Ristolainen awaiting hearing
At the time of practice, Rasmus Ristolainen had not yet had his telephone hearing with the Department of Player Safety for his hit on Penguins forward Jake Guentzel on Tuesday. Ristolainen received a five-minute interference major as well as a game misconduct for the hit, which occurred at 8:46 of the first period.
Ristolainen said he was anticipating a pass to Guentzel at the time of the hit, but the puck was intercepted by Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons. With little time to react, Ristolainen hip-checked Guentzel to the ice. Guentzel did not return and was diagnosed with a concussion.
"At the moment, I didn't expect to get thrown out of the game," Ristolainen said. "But later on, obviously he didn't have the puck, he didn't get it, our player broke the play and he got injured … It probably was the right call then. I'm not aware about the rules."
Ristolainen reiterated that it wasn't his intention to hurt Guentzel - he pointed out how he didn't take any strides and tried to give Guentzel time to prepare - and showed remorse for the injury.
"I tried to hit him," Ristolainen said. "Obviously he didn't get the puck so that's unfortunate and [it's] too bad he got injured."