For as good as Robin Lehner was in Buffalo's 4-0 win over Ottawa on Saturday, the performance from a defensive unit that was as healthy as it's been in quite some time also shouldn't be lost. The Sabres saw both Josh Gorges and Jake McCabe return from injury.
While Lehner did make a couple of saves worthy of the highlight reel, and Ottawa did tally 37 shots on the night, Buffalo's six-man unit for the most part was able to limit the quality of the Senators' chances.
"We played a pretty good game," defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen said. "I didn't think they had too many scoring chances. The other games we played before, the other teams had more scoring chances. We played alright."
Neither McCabe nor Gorges seemed to have skipped a beat despite having missed time, skating 18:48 and 16:04 of ice time, respectively. Both players were also steady presences on the penalty kill on night it went 2-for-2.
After the game, Dan Bylsma spoke about the element of physicality that was missed with those two players out of the lineup, and it was recognized by their teammates as well.
"Georgie's a guy who's not afraid to go out there and block a shot, no matter who it is, and put his body on the line," defenseman Cody Franson said. "Caber's a lot of the same way. They both try to be very physical, they play hard along the walls and they do a good job of trying to take the middle of the ice away on teams. When you have two guys like that who you can insert into your lineup, who keep the offensive players honest on the other team, I think it's a big help."
Meanwhile, Dmitry Kulikov is continuing to grow more comfortable as he distances himself from the 12-game absence caused by an injury to his lower back. He's been playing on the top pair alongside Ristolainen, and on Saturday he skated a team-high 25:23.
"We still have a lot of room to improve," Ristolainen. "We haven't played that many games in a row together so now we're building that chemistry and then we'll hopefully get it going better. But yeah, it's going alright so far. We play a lot of minutes so we've got to lead the team."
The Sabres are still without Zach Bogosian, who did not skate on Sunday and remains day-to-day with a rib injury. But if the other defensemen can finally remain healthy, Saturday was a strong start for the new pairs.
Spot on top line still up for grabs
Matt Moulson started the game on Saturday playing alongside Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo, but he wasn't the only player to see time at that spot. Justin Bailey and Tyler Ennis both saw multiple shifts on the top line as well, and all three players skated between nine and 12 minutes of ice time.
All three also saw extra time playing alongside either Jack Eichel or Ryan O'Reilly when those two centermen were double shifted at times to fill in for Nicolas Deslauriers on the fourth line. Bylsma said he's like to see one of those players find a permanent home on the top line, and excelling alongside either Eichel or O'Reilly is a way to do that.
"I'd like to see someone grab it," Bylsma said. " … I'd like one of those guys to grab a hold of that spot and not let it go."
Foligno clearing space for Eichel and Reinhart
The line of Marcus Foligno, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart hadn't been scoring at even strength as of late when they entered the game on Saturday, but they had created enough scoring chances to convince Bylsma to keep them together. Those chances finally turned into points against Ottawa, when Eichel fed both Reinhart and Foligno for third-period goals.
"I know that line hasn't been on the score sheet as a 5-on-5 in some time, but the number of scoring chances that they've gotten is in the elite number," Bylsma said. "When you get to seven or eight scoring chances at even strength a game, which is what I think they've been averaging over the last five games, they haven't scored but that's the type of production you want."
Foligno's goal was his first in 11 games, but Bylsma used Saturday as an example of how he's able to create offense without showing up on the score sheet.
"In the first period last night he had five net fronts that were scoring chances for somebody else but a result of him going through, driving through and being at the net," the coach said. "That's a real big indicator of what he does provide for that line."
New pants not a concern for Sabres goalies
Goalies in the NHL were required to wear new, streamlined pants beginning on Saturday, but it clearly had no effect on Lehner as he completed a 37-save shutout. That might be because, as Bylsma stated on Sunday, Lehner's been wearing those new pants all along.
"I think last night was the official start but Robin's been in them the whole year and Anders has been in them quite a bit," Bylsma said. "You can, I guess, look on 'NHL Today' and find out that this was the official day but for us it's been going on that way for pretty much the whole year so it's not a big adjustment for our goalies.
26 Matt Moulson - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
82 Marcus Foligno - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
9 Evander Kane - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 12 Brian Gionta
56 Justin Bailey - 44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 63 Tyler Ennis
77 Dmitry Kulikov - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe - 6 Cody Franson
4 Josh Gorges - 41 Justin Falk
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson