DENVER – He hasn't returned to Pepsi Center quite yet, but Ryan O'Reilly was able to catch some glimpses of his former city as the team bus took the Buffalo Sabres to their practice at Big Bear Ice Arena, a complex located in the suburbs east of downtown Denver.
"It was just funny. It feels like forever ago that I was here," O'Reilly said. "It's amazing, I feel like this is the city where I turned into a man kind of, coming in so young and all the experiences I had here."
In actuality, it's been less than seven months since a trade sent O'Reilly and Jamie McGinn to Buffalo in exchange for Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, J.T. Compher and the No. 31 pick in the 2015 Draft. O'Reilly had spent all of his six seasons with the Colorado Avalanche, beginning with an 81-game campaign as an 18-year-old rookie in 2009-10.
McGinn, on the other hand, had been traded before. He arrived in Colorado after being traded from San Jose midway through the 2011-12 season. As both players prepare to face the Avalanche for the first time since the trade on Wednesday night, McGinn has been preparing O'Reilly for what he might expect.
"Yeah, we were kind of talking about it," O'Reilly said. "He said if anything, it's just a weird experience when you have so many good friends that you played with for a long time and just watch everything turn and you're on the other end of it now. It's an exciting experience and I'm looking forward to it."
"It's kind of nerve-wrecking for your first time," McGinn admitted. "I'm a little more calm, I've been through it. You always look forward to these games and seeing how the crowd's going to react so it should be a good-energy game tomorrow. We're excited to come out and hopefully win a hockey game."
How the crowd reacts remains to be seen, but O'Reilly admitted that he's not expecting the warmest welcome. The business side of hockey resulted in his being traded to the Sabres, with whom he agreed to a seven-year contract extension upon his arrival.
However the fans react, it won't be anything new. It was less than two weeks ago when Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian made their first return to Winnipeg, where the former was booed throughout the entirety of the contest. Buffalo won that game 4-2.
"The fans have every right. They've got to cheer for their team and we're not with that squad anymore so it's all in good fun," McGinn said. "Watching what happened with Kaner and Bogo in Winnipeg, it was a lot of fun. It gets everyone into the game and it's intense so either way it'll be fine, I've still got to do a job out there."
Both players said that they enjoyed the time they spent in Colorado, but they've also both taken quite well to being in Buffalo. McGinn said he's already "fallen in love" with the city and the organization, while O'Reilly has seen new opportunities open to develop his game moving forward.
"I think my time in Denver was great," O'Reilly said. "I did enjoy it, obviously didn’t have the success that I felt I wanted to have, but I think it's been a great transition. I think [Buffalo is] a hockey town and we have a great group of guys here and I think, obviously, having the extended contract and being here for a while and being seen as more of a leader – it's just a way for me to expand my game and grow as a player and a person."
UPDATE ON GORGES
After missing the last two games with an upper-body injury, Josh Gorges participated in a full practice with the team again on Tuesday. Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said that the defenseman is a possibility to play against the Avalanche.
If Gorges does play, it means Bylsma will be faced with the difficult task of deciding which defenseman to remove from the lineup. That task became even more difficult after a stellar performance in Arizona on Monday.
"I think that game against Arizona, we gave up eight or nine scoring chances," Bylsma said. "It might've been our best of the year. As a group, we played pretty good, played pretty well defensively so yeah, they've been making it hard for me."
WEBER LEADS THE WAY ON THE PENALTY KILL
In Gorges' absence, Mike Weber has stepped up as a leader on a Buffalo penalty-kill unit that was 4-for-4 against Washington on Saturday and 5-for-5 against Arizona. All throughout the game, Weber could be seen blocking shots in front of the net or clearing rebounds before the Coyotes had a chance to strike.
"The last [few] games without Josh in there, he's been really the main guy on the penalty kill," Bylsma said. "I think he's got four big blocked shots for us on the penalty kill and, even better yet, there were some rebounds, there were some pucks in around on their power play and he was clearing out the front of the net in a big way."
Weber was quick to credit his teammates with the unit's success, too. He broke down how they got the job done against the Coyotes after practice on Tuesday.
"A four-man unit, everyone's committed, our forwards have been doing a great job with up-ice pressure and they're trying to get the pucks out of key players' hands early and forcing dumps," he said. "Once the teams kind of dump it in, it's an eight second-rule we have where it's kind of all-out pressure and we've been good with everyone getting in there and being able to get clears."
Buffalo used the current two-game road trip as its annual Parents Trip, where each player can bring a parent along to experience life on the road. Weber's father was one of a few parents who tagged along to practice on Tuesday, and Weber said that it was fitting that practice was being held in an ice-cold hockey barn as opposed to an NHL rink.
"It's been fun, it's always fun when you can kind of bring your folks in and share a little bit of your life with them," he said. "They all worked hard to get us to this level and obviously to come down here in a minor hockey rink where they spent most of their time freezing for us to play, for sure it's fitting."
9 Evander Kane – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 23 Sam Reinhart
84 Philip Varone – 15 Jack Eichel – 88 Jamie McGinn
82 Marcus Foligno – 22 Johan Larsson – Brian Gionta
26 Matt Moulson – 59 Tim Schaller – 17 David Legwand
47 Zach Bogosian – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 46 Cody Franson
6 Mike Weber – 3 Mark Pysyk
4 Josh Gorges – 25 Carlo Colaiacovo
40 Robin Lehner
31 Chad Johnson