It appears that the Buffalo Sabres might have received an early Christmas present, wrapped in a blue and gold sweater with No. 63 on the back.
Tyler Ennis skated with his teammates for the third day in a row at a Friday morning practice at HARBORCENTER, prompting Sabres coach Dan Bylsma to announce that the forward will return from his 12-game absence on Saturday against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Bylsma also announced that Chad Johnson, who posted a regular-season franchise record 44-save shutout in the Sabres' 3-0 win over Anaheim on Tuesday, will start in net against Chicago.
Coverage of Buffalo's matchup with the reigning Stanley Cup champions begins at 12:30 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550 with puck drop set for 1 p.m.
How Ennis's return will affect the Sabres' power-play units is difficult to tell given the absence of Rasmus Ristolainen at practice on Friday. Ristolainen took a maintenance day after logging 26:42 of ice time on Thursday.
Ristolainen's assist against Anaheim gave him 19 points in his last 20 games, a feat last reached by Sabres defenseman when Garry Galley did it in 1996.
Without the defenseman, Ennis lined up on a unit with Ryan O'Reilly, Sam Reinhart, Jamie McGinn and Zach Bogosian. Buffalo's other unit consisted of Jack Eichel, Evander Kane, Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta and Cody Franson.
Marcus Foligno, meanwhile, also made a return to practice sporting a red non-contact jersey. Foligno has missed two games with an upper-body injury and hadn't skated with the team since Dec. 14 in Detroit.
88 Jamie McGinn – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 23 Sam Reinhart
9 Evander Kane – 15 Jack Eichel – 63 Tyler Ennis
28 Zemgus Girgensons – 22 Johan Larsson – 12 Brian Gionta
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 17 David Legwand – 26 Matt Moulson
82 Marcus Foligno – 19 Cal O'Reilly
4 Josh Gorges – 25 Carlo Colaiacovo
29 Jake McCabe – 47 Zach Bogosian
6 Mike Weber – 46 Cody Franson
31 Chad Johnson
35 Linus Ullmark
MCCABE GETS HIS GOAL
Jake McCabe's goal in the second period on Thursday provided a bit of redemption for the Sabres defenseman. Not even a week ago, McCabe thought he had notched that third goal already against the Los Angeles Kings but it was overturned on a coach's challenge.
It's no coincidence that he's found twine twice in the last six days. Bylsma said that he's seen McCabe develop more of a tendency to leave the point and contribute to the rush over the past few games. He did it twice on his goal-scoring shift against Anaheim.
"I think it's just kind of reading and reacting," McCabe said. "If you know you can get a jump on that puck and be the first one to it to keep that cycle alive, the O-zone possession alive, that's a huge thing.
"I know the flip side of things, when teams keep it alive in our D-zone. As a defenseman you continue to have to play D-zone coverage and you're running around and you get pretty tired."
McCabe sat as a healthy scratch in Vancouver on Dec. 7, a night he said he used to take a deep breath and regain his confidence. Two games later, Bylsma thought he played his best game of the season in a 2-1 win over the Kings.
"I think from the get-go I was just involved with the game physically, mentally, making the simple plays to transition the puck up ice and playing solid defense," McCabe said. "That's kind of how I like to model my game is to stop their attackers as soon as possible to get the puck up to our offense."
It hasn't all been perfect. McCabe and his partner Zach Bogosian were on the ice for both of the Devils' goals in a 2-0 loss to New Jersey on Tuesday. But Bylsma still sees a formidable pair forming between the two defenders.
McCabe played the beginning of the season alongside Cody Franson and, at times, Mark Pysyk while Bogosian rehabbed a lower-body injury. Now, McCabe and Bogosian are feeling better each day about the chemistry that's begun to develop.
"It's been good," Bogosian said. "I think obviously with a new D-pairing there's been some growing pains but I've thought we skated well; that's our asset."
"Each guy has different tendencies," McCabe said. "You've got to figure that out and you've got to play together; it's going to take time but when you talk things out it's going to be easier. Zach, you can hear him all the time out there.
"Coming back to the bench, he's not a guy who's going to get on you if you make a bad play or whatever it may be. He's an easy guy to play with and hopefully we continue progressing here."