Eligible to return to game action from injured reserve on Sunday, Zemgus Girgensons got a practice under his belt with the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday afternoon at First Niagara Center after missing three games with a lower-body injury.
Girgensons sustained his injury late in the game during an overtime loss to Boston on Feb. 6. At the time, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma expressed hope that the injury wouldn't force Girgensons to miss any games but, as the days went on, the need to recall a forward led to his placement on IR.
"It just didn’t feel too well the next couple of days," he said. "I kept improving everyday and I feel pretty good now."
While Bylsma said he was still awaiting official word from the team doctor in regards to Girgensons status for Sunday's game against the Colorado Avalanche, he said he expects that Girgensons will be cleared to play. If he is, expect to see him centering a line with Marcus Foligno (coming off a three-point performance on Friday) and Brian Gionta.
Girgensons had been finding success playing to the left of Jack Eichel – the two connected on six goals since Dec. 30 – but the continued absence of Johan Larsson, who's also missed three games with a lower-body injury, has created a hole to fill at the center position.
"I anticipate that the doctor will tell me he's good to go and yes, with Larsson being out – you know I'd like to see Zemgus go back with Jack there on the wing, but with our situation, he'll probably play in the middle tomorrow," Bylsma said.
Larsson sustained his injury during the morning skate prior to Buffalo's game against Florida on Tuesday. He, too.,was hopeful to not miss any more than one game, but the nagging injury has delayed that return.
"He skated this morning on his own," Bylsma said. "He's significantly better but not able to join to practice. Hopefully we'll see him continue to get better and look to return to practice on Monday."
For Girgensons, this is the third set of games he's missed due to injury this season. He missed four games in late November and, more recently, missed four more with a lower-body injury from Jan. 16 to Jan. 22.
"It's just been bad breaks," Girgensons said. "It's mostly me being a little bit too reckless so it's just how it goes. I've just got to keep playing the way I've been playing. That stuff happens; you'll have ups and downs and injuries too."
Playing his first game in his hometown and his second in the NHL, Justin Bailey's teammates congratulated him as he got to the bench after Josh Gorges scored in the second period against Montreal on Friday.
Bailey and his teammates thought that he had just registered his first career point with an assist on Gorges' goal. Bailey dished the puck to Eichel, who subsequently found Gorges in front of the net. The problem, however, was that Gorges scored on a rebound of his initial shot, which bounced off of Jamie McGinn.
The assists were given to McGinn and Eichel, leaving Bailey off the score sheet.
"It definitely would have been nice to get one there," Bailey said, laughing. "I think it will come sooner or later."
While both Bailey and Bylsma recognized that he made some rookie mistakes in his second game, he also once again showed his unique combination of speed and size. On Gorges' goal, Bailey got the play started by battling along the wall and cycling the puck along to Eichel.
"If you look to the goal that Gorges scores, the initial play is a puck along the wall to Justin and he bodies up against the guy, wins the puck, comes up the wall, and makes the scissor cycle to Jack and Jack eventually to Gorges on the far side," Bylsma said. "That's a play I really liked, just using his size and body down low to win a puck and create room and space."
Bailey also, for the second game in a row, had a chance to net his first career goal on a 1-on-1 opportunity with the goaltender thanks to a feed from Eichel in the slot. Bylsma said he would've liked to see Bailey use his shot, but instead the rookie pulled a move and tried to slide the puck in at the post.
"It was real close again," Bailey said. "I'm getting a lot of chances so I've just got to capitalize on the chances I get."
ACCOUNTABILITY ON DEFENSE
After giving up five goals or more in losses to Florida and Philadelpia, Bylsma made the decision to mix up his defensive unit on Saturday by reinserting Carlo Colaiacovo into the lineup after he sat as a healthy scratch for 15 games.
Colaiacovo was a plus-1 in 12:09 of ice time. Mark Pysyk, meanwhile, sat as a healthy scratch along with Mike Weber.
"Well, I didn’t like our last two games defensively and that would be inclusive of a lot of people," Bylsma said. "But I think just the opportunities and the situations we were giving up in the games Mark was a part of and we're going to have that accountability in our game."
COLORADO COMING TO TOWN
The last time the Sabres played the Avalanche, it was back on Jan. 20 in Denver and it definitely didn't end the way the Sabres liked. Buffalo held a 1-0 lead into the third period of that game, but Alex Tanguay scored the tying goal with 10:37 remaining and Francois Beauchemin scored the game-winner with just 32 seconds remaining to lift Colorado to a 2-1 victory.
"I think in that game it really wasn’t just the third, it was the last 30 minutes of that game that really turned into a half-ice game," Bylsma said. "We played a good portion of that game in our defensive zone and spent a lot of energy defending and you can't do that against this team.
"They come at you with speed and have skill … That's something we have to do a better job of doing, playing defense offensively by going forward, playing in the offensive zone and not letting their speed and skill come at us."
Coverage on Sunday begins at 12 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550.
VARONE REASSIGNED TO ROCHESTER
The Sabres reassigned forward Phil Varone to the Rochester Americans on Saturday afternoon. Varone was recalled on Friday and earned an assist in the 6-4 win over Montreal.
9 Evander Kane – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 23 Sam Reinhart
88 Jamie McGinn – 15 Jack Eichel – 56 Justin Bailey
82 Marcus Foligno – 28 Zemgus Girgensons – 12 Brian Gionta
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 17 David Legwand/ 84 Phil Varone – 26 Matt Moulson
Defensemen: 4 Josh Gorges, 55 Rasmus Ristolainen, 29 Jake McCabe, 47 Zach Bogosian, 25 Carlo Colaiacovo, 46 Cody Franson, 6 Mike Weber, 3 Mark Pysyk
40 Robin Lehner
31 Chad Johnson