When the Buffalo Sabres take the ice against the Montreal Canadiens at First Niagara Center on Wednesday night, Ryan O'Reilly will join them for the first time since injuring his foot during a game on Feb. 19.
Since that injury, 11 games have come and gone for the Sabres without their alternate captain. O'Reilly said that the length of his absence was primarily due to the concern of avoiding future injury. Had the Sabres been in a playoff race, he said, he would've played much sooner.
Even with the Sabres well out of a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, O'Reilly was pushing to come back and play on Saturday before he had even practiced with the team. Playoff race or not, O'Reilly stressed the importance of the last 12 games of the season on Wednesday.
"Obviously we're a long way out and it's frustrating, but we have to learn to win no matter what situation it is," he said. "You can't just, once you're out of the playoffs, give up and not worry about it. We have to learn as a team how to win and if we want to come back strong next year we gave to use everything we can.
"Teams don't just turn around and the next year they win the Cup. It's years of competing and being there every single year so we have a long way to go but, again, these are important games. It's going to show a lot about our character and the direction the team is going."
The Sabres have begun to show that recent character, earning points in five of their last seven outings. Perhaps most notably, Jack Eichel has seven points (4+3) in the last six games after going scoreless in the first five without O'Reilly.
Sam Reinhart (seven points), Evander Kane (eight) and Brian Gionta (eight) have also been regular contributors on offense during O'Reilly's absence while the rest of the lineup has played a consistent defensive game that's limited opponents' opportunities.
"Guys know it's just not hitting the restart button next year," O'Reilly said. "We have to learn. We have to get better. We're not just going to have overnight success, it's going to take a lot of hard work and doing things we don’t necessarily want to do."
O'Reilly was in the midst of an 18-game stretch without a goal himself at the time of his injury. He'd also tallied 14 assists in that same stretch, however, in addition to bringing his usual strong presence in the faceoff circle and on the penalty kill.
"I think right before he got injured we'd seen him start to produce point-wise, not necessarily goal wise," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "The four games prior to his injury were his best in the previous 15 in terms of generating offense, being back in the offensive end and creating.
"… That's a long time ago now. I don’t think he even remembers, I think he's excited to get back on the ice and just play versus how many goals he's got in his last 10."
While he appreciated the rest, it seems O'Reilly would agree.
"I don’t think I've ever missed this much hockey to injury so it's definitely weird coming back," he said. "Even though I wasn’t playing and wasn’t involved with the team as much it was good to get away and regroup. I think I've got that hunger back and hopefully I'll be on the ice with that edge."
Robin Lehner will start in net for the Sabres on Wednesday. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Sportsnet. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550.
With O'Reilly returning to the lineup, rookie forward Daniel Catenacci was reassigned to the Rochester Americans on Wednesday afternoon. Catenacci has averaged 8:43 of ice time in 10 games with the Sabres this season.
9 Evander Kane – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 44 Nicolas Deslauriers
28 Zemgus Girgensons – 15 Jack Eichel – 23 Sam Reinhart
82 Marcus Foligno – 22 Johan Larsson – 12 Brian Gionta
19 Cal O'Reilly – 17 David Legwand – 26 Matt Moulson
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 47 Zach Bogosian
25 Carlo Colaiacovo – 3 Mark Pysyk
40 Robin Lehner
31 Chad Johnson