PITTSBURGH – Dan Bylsma was one of the first people to skate onto the ice at Console Energy Center for practice on Wednesday morning. He was surrounded by 19,758 empty seats and nearly six years worth of memories.
“I look at the empty seats, I know 50 faces [that will be] in the stands tomorrow and where they sit,” the Sabres coach said. “I know where my family sat when they were here. There’s certainly going to be some emotions.”
On Thursday night, Bylsma will coach his first game in Pittsburgh since parting ways with the Penguins after the 2013-14 season. He led Pittsburgh to six-consecutive Stanley Cup Playoff berths during his time as coach of the Penguins and won the Cup in 2008-09, his first with the team.
Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The can also be heard live on WGR 550. Puck drop is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Bylsma said that he won’t be moved to tears when he returns to the bench, but he also did not downplay the fact that there will be emotions in the game. He’s already felt certain emotions, be it when he arrived downtown Tuesday night or when he first walked into the arena out of the pouring rain Wednesday morning.
Bylsma lived in Pittsburgh during his year away from the NHL, so he’s been around. But the feeling is different now.
“Being here for a year last year, I probably became a little bit emotionally detached from the team and the city,” he said. “Coming in last night it felt different than probably the previous 400 days that I’ve been in Pittsburgh.”
Sabres forwards Tyler Ennis and Sam Reinhart were both absent from Wednesday’s practice for maintenance days, Bylsma said. The coach expressed confidence that both will be ready to play Thursday night.
Tim Schaller filled in for Ennis alongside Nicolas Deslauriers and Ryan O’Reilly in drills while assistant coach Dave Barr participated in Reinhart’s place alongside Johan Larsson and Jack Eichel.
REFOCUSED JOHNSON SAVES THE DAY
On a night that included a World Series game, opening night in the NBA and nine other NHL games, the No. 2 play in SportsCenter’s Top 10 on Tuesday belonged to Sabres goaltender Chad Johnson.
In overtime against the Flyers, on a scoring attempt in the blue paint by Simon Gagner, the puck drifted away from the Flyers forward across the crease, just past Sabre defenseman Jake McCabe.
Philadelphia’s Scott Laughton was there to clean it up on a seemingly open net. But not on Johnson’s watch.
The goaltender dove to his right just in time to stop Laughton’s attempt and save the game for the Sabres. Less than a minute later, Zemgus Girgensons scored the game-winner on a breakaway.
“I was sort of following it with my eyes,” Johnson said. “I knew I was in bad position so you’re kind of in desperation mode, you’re kind of reaching back for it. Again [the 3-on-3 overtime] is kind of mayhem, it’s like summer hockey out there, it’s just back and forth so it’s nice that we scored right after that.”
The victory was especially important for Johnson considering his performance in his last outing against Montreal, in which he gave up seven goals on 26 shot attempts. He rebounded with a 30-save effort against the Flyers.
“It was sort of a big rebound game for me after it was just one of those days the game before. For me again I just wanted to refocus and just play my game so it was nice to get the win,” he said.
Refocusing, he said, isn’t as complicated as it sounds.
“I think when you sit down and say ‘OK, I’ve got to change this, change that, I’ve got to get out here and do this, do that,’ I think now you’re over thinking it,” Johnson said. “You just got out there and do the same thing you do every day. You focus on the next shot, you compete, and that’s about it.”
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 59 Tim Schaller
22 Johan Larsson – 15 Jack Eichel – Assistant Coach Dave Barr
26 Matt Moulson – 28 Zemgus Girgensons – 12 Brian Gionta
82 Marcus Foligno – 17 David Legwand – 88 Jamie McGinn
Defensemen: 4 Josh Gorges, 55 Rasmus Ristolainen, 29 Jake McCabe, 46 Cody Franson, 25 Carlo Colaiacovo, 3 Mark Pysyk, 6 Mike Weber
31 Chad Johnson
35 Linus Ullmark