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Sabres shake up lines ahead of meeting with Wild

Sheary, Okposo skate alongside Eichel at Monday's practice

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

In search of a spark, the Sabres sent out a new-look lineup for practice at Harborcenter on Monday morning. Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart were split up to balance the forward lines, while C.J. Smith was recalled after a torrid stretch in Rochester. The defense pairs and power-play units were altered as well.

It's the second time this season that Phil Housley has gone with a whole new look to his lines, the first being when he united Skinner, Eichel and Jason Pominville during a practice in Los Angeles on Oct. 19. The Sabres responded by winning their next three games and earning points in their next five. 

"Everybody had a role, an identity," Housley said of that early-season shakeup. "But in saying that, I think we were playing the game the right way back then, making good puck decisions, managing our game, our checking detail was really solid, and we got to get back to that. 

"You can mix the lines up all you want, but if you don't manage a game, you don't have a respect for your own net, you're going to get the same result."


That last point was one Kyle Okposo stressed as well, with attention to detail away from the puck having been a point of emphasis in the days following a 7-3 loss to Chicago on Friday.

"Different lines are going to be different lines, but we have to play better without the puck, and we have to defend better," Okposo said. "No matter what line combinations you throw out there, if you don't do that, you're not going to win many games. I don't think we can lose sight of that. 

"We have to play the right way. I think the work ethic has really been there for the most part this year. I think that's been really good. I just think our attention to detail needs to be a little bit better."

Housley said the lines are subject to change, but here's how they looked on Monday:

43 Conor Sheary - 9 Jack Eichel - 21 Kyle Okposo
53 Jeff Skinner - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 29 Jason Pominville
49 C.J. Smith - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 23 Sam Reinhart
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 17 Vladimir Sobotka - 72 Tage Thompson

26 Rasmus Dahlin - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
24 Lawrence Pilut - 4 Zach Bogosian
6 Marco Scandella - 19 Jake McCabe
82 Nathan Beaulieu - 48 Matt Hunwick / 8 Casey Nelson

Johan Larsson returned to practice after sitting out of Friday's game with a lower-body injury but did not skate on a line. He's still considered day-to-day, Housley said.

The most notable change is the separation of Skinner and Eichel, who formed one of the NHL's top scoring duos upon being made linemates in Los Angeles. The Sabres have posted a 61.54 goals-for percentage in 562:19 when both forwards have shared the ice at 5-on-5.

Housley admitted that it was a difficult decision, but Skinner said he's embracing the changes.

"I think throughout the course of a season lines change all the time," Skinner said. "Everyone in here is an NHL player. Just go on your new line and get to know your linemates and sort of get the chemistry going as quick as you can. I thought we did a good job in the drills at practice and we'll just keep getting better."

Video: AFTER PRACTICE: Housley

Reinhart and Rodrigues, meanwhile, have both spoken this season about their comfort playing alongside one another. They've posted a 54.05 Corsi-for percentage in 77:13 together at 5-on-5, and they'll have a rookie aiming to prove himself on their left wing in Smith.

Smith scored a goal on eight shots during his four-game stint with the Sabres in January. The NHL roster got healthy, and he was sent back to Rochester with the directive to stick to his game. He scored a hat trick as part of a four-point, seven shot outing for Rochester in Toronto the following night, then tallied points in six of the next seven games. 

"I'm not going to sulk on anything or quit on anything, especially the guys down in Rochester, too," he said. "I'm really close with them and really like the coaching staff, so it wasn't going to affect who I am or my personality at all.

"I just went back with a lot of confidence. I think it kind of showed in my game down there, too."

Smith has 41 points in 41 AHL games this season, which leads the Amerks.

"He deserves a shot to get back and an opportunity," Housley said. "I like what he brings - the spark and the speed and the skill."

The Sabres have six games left on their current homestand, which continues with a visit from the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday. After that, it's a date with the Carolina Hurricanes - a team they're tied with in the standings - on Thursday. 

"Obviously, we've got to play better," Mittelstadt said. "Sometimes shaking things up helps, you find some new chemistry. I think everyone's excited."

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