The Sabres took the ice without their captain in their final practice ahead of Thursday night’s regular-season opener against the Ottawa Senators at First Niagara Center.
Brian Gionta sustained a lower-body injury late in practice on Tuesday and is day-to-day, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma announced following Wednesday’s practice. Sam Reinhart filled in for Gionta on the right wing on a line with Evander Kane and center Jack Eichel.
Other changes to the practice lineup on Wednesday included Johan Larsson centering Zemgus Girgensons on the left and Marcus Foligno on the right and Jamie McGinn playing the right wing opposite Nicolas Deslauriers with David Legwand as their center.
It remains to be seen whether or not Gionta will be ready to play against the Senators. If necessary, Bylsma said that he likes the potential for Reinhart to play alongside Eichel and Kane.
Reinhart will be ready regardless of the situation.
“I think first off, I’ll play with as much confidence as possible,” he said. “No matter who I’m playing with, I’m playing with good players, so [using] them to my advantage and I think keeping things simple in this league will benefit me.”
In other injury news, defenseman Josh Gorges continued to practice with the team on Wednesday.
Bylsma said afterward that Gorges is a possibility to play on Thursday after missing all but one of the team’s preseason games with a lower-body injury.
Gorges, who has been paired on the left side with Rasmus Ristolainen in practice, said he hopes to be ready for the season.
Pregame coverage Thursday begins at 6:30 p.m. on MSG-B. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550. Puck drop is scheduled for just after 7 p.m.
LEHNER TO START AGAINST OLD FRIENDS
Bylsma announced after practice that goaltender Robin Lehner will start in net on Thursday against his former team. The Sabres acquired Lehner from the Senators on June 26 in exchange for a first-round pick.
Lehner said that he’d be lying if he tried to make it seem like he wasn’t thinking about the matchup.
“Of course I do. I have a lot of history there, a lot of good friends,” he said. “I talked to a few of the guys yesterday from Ottawa. They want to score and I want to save it, so it’s going to be fun.”
Lehner played two periods against the Senators in a preseason matchup at First Niagara Center on Sept. 23, but Ottawa brought very few of their veteran players to that game. Thursday night will be his first chance to see most of his former teammates on the ice.
But as much as he’s looking forward to seeing some old faces, he’s equally excited about finally battling for two points with his new Sabres teammates.
“I feel really good in practice. I felt like I got better every day and I feel like our team is getting better every day,” he said. “We’re working every day to gel, to get to know each other, to start playing with each other. We expect to win every game we’re going to play but it takes time to get that “click.” Hopefully it starts tomorrow.”
BACK ON THE BENCH
As excited as the players are to begin the season, Bylsma also expressed some of his own anticipation for Thursday’s opener. It will mark his first regular-season game on the bench since leaving the Pittsburgh Penguins organization following the 2013-14 season.
“There’s a high sense of anticipation and excitement going into the start of the season, tomorrow’s game. It probably started a few days ago,” he said. “A friend asked me that question and it’s not quite like coaching your first game, but there is a high level of excitement.”
While he didn’t coach in the NHL, Bylsma’s hiatus from the league wasn’t quite a year off. He remained in the loop on the latest happenings by watching many games as both a fan and a TV analyst. He was then on the bench as an assistant coach for Team USA at the IIHF World Championship in May, where the Americans earned a bronze medal.
26 Matt Moulson – 90 Ryan O’Reilly – 63 Tyler Ennis
9 Evander Kane – 41 Jack Eichel – 23 Sam Reinhart
28 Zemgus Girgensons – 22 Johan Larsson – 82 Marcus Foligno
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 17 David Legwand – 88 Jamie McGinn
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
6 Mike Weber – 46 Cody Franson
29 Jake McCabe – 25 Carlo Colaiacovo
65 Matt Donovan – 3 Mark Pysyk
40 Robin Lehner
31 Chad Johnson
First Unit: Evander Kane, Sam Reinhart, Jack Eichel, Marcus Foligno and Rasmus Ristolainen
Second Unit: Tyler Ennis, Jamie McGinn, Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Moulson and Cody Franson