Two players scored multiple goals for the Buffalo Sabres in their win over the Toronto Maples Leafs on Thursday night. Marcus Foligno was not one of them. Yet, when all was said and done, it was Foligno whom Sabres coach Dan Bylsma praised for playing his "best all-around game" of the season.
So what was it that Foligno did so well?
"I thought the puck pressure I had all night was really good," Foligno said. "The tempo I had in my step and I think the choices I made with the puck. It was definitely one my best games this year."
That decision making was evident throughout the night, and it earned him an assist in the first period. Foligno held off a defender in the neutral zone to make a quick backhand pass to Brian Gionta on the rush, who in turn, fed Johan Larsson for the game's first goal.
But Foligno's numbers go beyond his point total. Take first, for example, the plus-2 rating that he finished the night with. Foligno is now a plus-5 on the season, which leads the Sabres. He's been on the ice for 2.6 goals per 60 minutes in 5-on-5 situations, which also leads the team.
Those numbers are made more impressive when you consider Foligno's role as a defensive stopper along with linemates Larsson and Gionta. Not only is he coming out on the plus side of things, he's doing it against other teams' top lines night in and night out.
"Part of our job is to make sure we're on the better side of that," Gionta said. "You're going against top lines [and] one off shift, one little mistake ends up in the back of your net."
Having a short memory when those mistakes do occur is part of the job. Foligno looks back to a 4-3 loss at home to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 21, when his line was matched up with Sidney Crosby's. Crosby got an assist in the first period, but it was his only point of the night. Crosby also only tallied one shot.
"It was a tough night for Sidney Crosby and his line," Foligno said. "First lines in this League are really, really good and you've got to do a good job and frustrate them."
They manufacture that frustration by keeping the play in their offensive zone with a relentless forecheck, at which Foligno, Larsson and Gionta all thrive. Their skates and sticks are constantly moving, forcing turnovers that often lead to points.
It's shown on the score sheet. Since Jan. 8, when the line began playing together consistently, Foligno has 16 points (8+8), Larsson has 11 (8+3) and Gionta has 18 (6+12).
Prior to Jan. 8, Foligno had seven points, Larsson had just four and Gionta had 12. That means they've accounted for 66 percent of their collective points in less than three months together.
Bylsma went into detail about what all three bring to the table beginning with Larsson, the nuisance in the middle of the ice. He's playing smart and responsibly but also with an unmistakable edge to his game.
"He's matched up against other teams good lines, good players and they know he's there," Bylsma said. "They're dealing with a pretty angry guy in the middle of the ice."
Foligno brings a rare combination of speed and physicality that is difficult to deal with, and he's bringing it as consistently now as he ever has in his NHL career.
"Playing with an edge, playing physical, playing [as a] very big-bodied guy who can skate," Bylsma said. "He's just tough to handle when he's playing with that speed."
Gionta, meanwhile, is the veteran presence that glues it all together.
"I think over the course of the last 35 games you see the consistency of the line and in those guys' play," Bylsma said. "A lot of that I think would be attributed to Brian."
When their relentless effort doesn’t lead to goals of their own, it often leads to opportunities for the power play. Foligno in particular has excelled in that area with a team-leading 19 penalties drawn in 5-on-5 situations. That number ranks tied for 14th in the League.
Two of those penalties were drawn against the Maple Leafs on Thursday, including this one that came on a forecheck in the second period:
"He's hard to play [against]," Bylsma said of Foligno. "He's playing with speed and driving hard, driving wide, putting pucks in the corner. He's a hard guy to handle; a hard guy to deal with … Last night's a great example of that being the case. They create a turnover in the neutral zone, he comes back with a lot of speed, he comes at their defenseman, puts it behind him and draws the penalty."
Only four games remain this season, but that doesn't mean the line of Foligno, Larsson and Gionta has to soon come to an end. Given their consistency over the last three months, Bylsma said they'd be an easy candidate to stick together come October.
"Right now if you look forward, you see a line that's been together for a good number of games," Bylsma said. "They've played well together, they've been formidable together and it would be really easy to say on July 15 that the line of 82-22-12 is going to be able to do this, play here and have that role for your team."Statistics used for this article are via waronice.com.
Goalie Jason Kasdorf, who has not played since signing his entry-level contract on March 14, participated in a full practice with the team on Friday and said his injured groin felt fine. He won't travel with the Sabres on their upcoming two-game road trip, but Bylsma did not rule out seeing Kasdorf start one of the final two games on Friday and Saturday of next week.
Bylsma also said that he hopes to see Tyler Ennis (concussion) join the team on the ice when they return from their road trip m, but conceded that he's doubtful we'll see the same from defenseman Cody Franson (neck).
"I think it would be probably at the point where it would be unlikely," Bylsma said of Franson. "Still hoping that we can have a healthy Tyler Ennis for the last five days. Whether that means a game or not I don’t know, but we're moving in that direction. Cody's probably not looking like that's going to be the case."