DENVER - Break's over! The Buffalo Sabres returned to practice Friday afternoon at Joe Burns Ice Arena at the University of Denver as they prepare for Saturday night's game against the Colorado Avalanche.
Zemgus Girgensons and Sam Reinhart skated with the team in the first practice after the bye week. Girgensons has missed the last seven games with a mid-body injury while Reinhart has not played in the last two due to an illness.
However, they both seem to be on track to play Colorado tomorrow night as they were full participants at practice.
"[The break] probably fell in a good place for me, just to get a couple more days to heal fully," Girgensons, who put in some hard skates before the break, said. "I get today, a good skate and [I should be] be 100 percent to go tomorrow."
The Sabres had been off since Sunday's home loss to Chicago, so the ability to put in a high-tempo practice was both welcome and needed.
"We just had to get out there and blow some of the sand off our feet and get a good skate in for a good 25, 30 minutes, which we did," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "We tried to put an emphasis on game situations to get back into that right away here."
The Sabres have the benefit of being able to practice coming out of the bye week because they had to travel for their first game back. They'll be on the ice again for the morning skate at Pepsi Center tomorrow.
"We were skating well. The execution might have been a little lackluster, but the overall pace of the play and guys were moving pretty well," Jack Eichel said. "It was nice to see some guys out here that were a little banged up or sick before the break. Four days got us a little healthier. Ready to take on the next 22 games that we have."
Before the team made the flight to Denver this afternoon, they made some roster moves. Justin Bailey and Evan Rodrigues, who were sent down to the AHL to play in the Rochester Americans' game on Wednesday, were recalled. Derek Grant was assigned to the Amerks.
In Girgensons' absence (and to be precise Johan Larsson's), Rodrigues filled the third-line center role the past six games. Now, with Girgensons back and pivoting the line with Marcus Foligno and Brian Gionta, Rodrigues will likely play with Tyler Ennis and Matt Moulson. Nicolas Deslauriers also rotated in on that line and has played some center between them this season.
What has helped Rodrigues stick around?
"He's been extremely responsible and intelligent on the defensive side of the puck. That's been the biggest thing from him," Bylsma said.
"He's had some opportunities to score… but it's really been his responsibility on the other side of the puck. It's been his positioning, his puck support, his coming out of the D zone has been really quite impressive and the reason why he's still getting the chance to do it."
Brian Duff will have more with the one they call E-Rod later in today's edition of Sabres In :90.
Reinhart stepped right back in on a line with Eichel and Evander Kane. Bylsma said that Reinhart has put back on most of the weight he lost while battling the illness.
Kane, meanwhile, has been electric since he returned from cracked ribs on December 1.
He's scored each of his 21 goals this season in his last 36 games, including a team-high 20 at even strength.
In that span, he is ranked second among all NHL skaters in goals (21), leads the league in even-strength goals (20) and ranks fifth in shots on goal (140). He also has 15 points (9+6) in his last 14 games.
He plans to keep up that momentum even with the five-day layoff factored in.
"Just staying hungry, I think that's the biggest thing. Staying hungry," he said. "Obviously his is the time of year where you want to be playing meaningful hockey and you want to step up and play your best."
Lines and Defensive Pairings at Friday's Practice
56 Justin Bailey - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
9 Evander Kane - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
82 Marcus Foligno - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 12 Brian Gionta
26 Matt Moulson - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 63 Tyler Ennis - 44 Nicolas Deslauriers
29 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
77 Dmitry Kulikov - 47 Zach Bogosian
4 Josh Gorges - 6 Cody Franson
41 Justin Falk
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson
Out of the break and into the stretch run
The Sabres come out of their bye week with 62 points after 60 games. Entering Friday night's action, they sit six points out of a playoff spot (behind Toronto for third place in the Atlantic and the Islanders for the second Wild Card spot).
"It's a tight race if you look at the standings. The next 22 games that we have, we're going to have to give everything we've got," Girgensons said. "It's kind of the playoffs for us. All of the teams are battling for it, every game counts and we need any two points you can get."
The Sabres play tomorrow and then in Arizona on Sunday. They'll return home for a game on Tuesday against Nashville, which is all part of a seven-games-in-11-days stretch.
"We now have an opportunity - we play three in four nights here and we're going to get to Wednesday and have six points that we could possibly gain," Bylsma said. "That's something we're going to have to do. That's the just the challenge for us. Just coming out of the break, we're going to have to be at our best."
How to catch Saturday's game
Join us for the Tops Game Night pregame show at 9:30 p.m. ET on MSG tomorrow night. Puck drop is slated for just after 10 and you can also listen to Dan Dunleavy and Rob Ray's call on WGR 550.