Ryan O'Reilly is many things for the Buffalo Sabres, a fact made evident in most of the games he plays but perhaps even more so in his return to the lineup on Thursday. He's their most reliable forward in the defensive zone and in the faceoff circle in addition to being counted on as one of their top scores.
His presence in Chicago was also a perfect example of what he means to the Buffalo power play, which ranks fifth in the League at 22.6 percent after a 2-for-3 outing against the Blackhawks. O'Reilly earned the primary assist on both goals, giving him 12 power-play points in 28 games this season. Of the 32 NHL players who rank ahead of him in that category, 30 have played 35 games of more.
Dan Bylsma outlined exactly what O'Reilly means to Buffalo's top unit following practice at KeyBank Center on Friday.
"We have a 1-3-1 power play, we have [Rasmus Ristolainen] in the middle of the ice and Jack [Eichel] and Ryan on the flanks," the Sabres coach said. "You feel like he's the quarterback, the distributor of the puck even though he's not on the top. He adds that for us. Distribution of the puck, it's much different when he's not there."
Patience, decisiveness and creativity are among the virtues that make O'Reilly an asset with the extra man. All three of those qualities factored into his assist on Eichel's goal in the third period, when he looked more like a point guard than a quarterback as he skated in toward the net and then sent a no-look pass across the ice to set up Eichel's one-time shot.
Video: BUF@CHI: O'Reilly sets up Eichel for power-play blast
We've seen that passing acumen from O'Reilly many times with the man advantage this season, often with Eichel on the receiving end. Watch this pass from the third period of Buffalo's home loss to Carolina on Dec. 22, when O'Reilly faked a drop-back pass before feeding Eichel for a one-time opportunity that was stopped by Cam Ward.
"First of all I think the power play starts in the faceoff circle, and he's one of the best in the League," Eichel said. "You see the play he makes last night, he adds a whole new dynamic. [He's a] left shot on the other side, creative, makes a lot of good plays, he's strong with a puck so he's a huge piece for our power play. He'd be a huge piece for any power play."
It's not always a flashy, highlight-reel pass that shows O'Reilly's effectiveness. Look at the one power play that the Sabres didn't score on in Chicago, when the top unit kept the puck in the offensive zone for the final 1:20. O'Reilly touched the puck seven times after carrying it into the zone on that possession, cycling zone like the second hand on a clock.
In that 1:20 span alone, O'Reilly saved the puck at the blue line in the top left corner, fielded a rebound below the left half way and made an immediate pass to Kyle Okposo in the high slot, caught a pass on the right doorstep and fed the puck across the crease to Sam Reinhart, and drew the defense in toward him above the right circle to free Eichel at the point.
The top unit ended up being out on the ice for the entirety of the two-minute power play.
"I was trying to control Ryan's minutes a little bit and that power play was in zone for 1:45," Bylsma said. "Almost the duration of time they were in zone largely because of his puck control and his puck distribution."
Video: BYLSMA: After Practice (1/6/17)
Tyler Ennis skated again with the team but there is still no timetable for his return to the lineup, according to Bylsma. Ennis has missed 26 games since undergoing groin surgery on Nov. 10.
William Carrier, who did not play in Chicago on Thursday, was absent from practice and remains under the weather. Here's how the lines looked in his absence:
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 12 Brian Gionta
82 Marcus Foligno - 15 Jack Eichel - 21 Kyle Okposo
9 Evander Kane - 23 Sam Reinhart - 56 Justin Bailey
44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 27 Derek Grant - 26 Matt Moulson
63 Tyler Ennis
Defensemen: 29 Jake McCabe, 55 Rasmus Ristolainen, 47 Zach Bogosian, 6 Cody Franson, 4 Josh Gorges, 38 Taylor Fedun, 41 Justin Falk
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson
Bylsma did not announce his goalie for the team's home game against Winnipeg on Saturday afternoon. That game begins at 1 p.m., with the Tops Pregame Show kicking off coverage on MSG-B and 12:30. You can also listen live on WGR 550.