While the rest of the Buffalo Sabres have taken the ice for practice over the past few weeks, sounds of ricocheting pucks would resound loudly from a room just outside the main concourse at First Niagara Center. There in a shooting booth would be Ryan O'Reilly, firing shot after shot as he worked toward recovering from a lower-body injury sustained on Feb. 19.
On Friday, O'Reilly took another step forward toward doing just that. O'Reilly and defenseman Cody Franson – both out since Feb. 19 with their respective injuries – skated on a second rink off to the side as the team practiced on the feature rink.
O'Reilly and Franson didn’t return from their skate until well after their teammates had made their way back to the locker room at First Niagara Center. If the ice wasn't booked for another group, they might still be there now.
"[We were] kind of kicked off I guess," O'Reilly said, smiling. "It was a tough day. It might not look that tough but still just getting out there, trying to get my feel back and just skating. I think I can do all the stuff off the ice, the gym and that, but to actually get out there and do the drills and all the different skills, it's different but it's coming."
O'Reilly was sustained his lower-body injury three weeks ago when he was hit in the foot with a pass around the boards in the offensive zone. At first, he said, he thought it was just a stinger, but tests afterward revealed it was something more.
"It's a bummer," he said. "You never like watching the game and watching your team go out there, but it's an unfortunate bounce that happened. I just try to control what I can control, which is getting the rest I need. But at the same time, [I've been] getting that kind of hunger back for this last little bit."
With an initial timetable of 3-to-4 weeks for his recovery time, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said that he's progressing right on schedule.
"Three weeks was a date to see the doctor and the fact that he's gotten on the ice is an indication that he's had some healing and some progression," Bylsma said. "Hopefully as he gets tested on the ice significantly today, hopefully we can continue to progress into next week when we practice Monday and Tuesday."
Franson, meanwhile, has been skating throughout the week as he looks to return from a neck injury he sustained on a hit into the boards in Columbus.
"He skated a little bit Wednesday, skated yesterday and again today so hopefully that means he can progress into next week," Bylsma said.
FILLING IN ON FACEOFFS
O'Reilly led the team in faceoff percentage and led the entire League in faceoffs taken at the time of his injury, and his absence was noticeable in the faceoff circle in Buffalo's first game without him. The Sabres won only 42 percent of their draws in that game, a 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh.
As the games have gone on, however, the team's performance in the faceoff circle has steadily improved. In their last four games, the Sabres have won 50 percent of their faceoffs three times and 51 percent the other. That includes games against second-ranked Minnesota Wild, fifth-ranked Toronto Maple Leafs and sixth-ranked Montreal Canadiens.
"We've had to make some adjustments in personnel and deployment of guys," Bylsma said. "I think you've seen guys step up in Ryan's absence in the faceoff circle."
Johan Larsson, Cal O'Reilly and Jack Eichel are three players who have stepped up notably. Larsson has taken begun to take draws on the penalty kill in Ryan O'Reilly's former spot and has won a season-best 13 draws in two of his last three games.
Cal O'Reilly, meanwhile, has stepped in for situational draws in the defensive zone as well as on the power play.
"I think as a group we're trying to get better," he said. "When you take a lot of draws you get good at them and you learn what works for you. Each centerman has some things that they do that works … For myself, I'm not going in there to outmuscle guys. I kind of use my brain more and my timing."
Learning what works has been part of the process for the rookie Eichel, who's won 50 percent or more of his faceoffs in three of his last five games. That's come not only in practice, but also in learning from opponents in his first tour of the League.
"You've got a lot of guys that come in and they'll tie your stick up and kick it with their feet, you have guys that will cover the dot with their foot, they'll come in and they'll kind of carve they're skate through the dot and cover it, little things like that," Eichel said.
"I think [Claude] Giroux in Philadelphia is really good at draws, I think Bergeron is really good. Bergeron is usually the best in the League every year, he bears down, he gets really low and he battles. I think you can just watch those guys, get a sense of what they're doing and kind of emulate it."
Robin Lehner and Zach Bogosian both were absent from practice on Friday for maintenance days, Bylsma said. Both are expected to be available against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday afternoon. The rest of the lineup had the same look from recent games:
9 Evander Kane – 15 Jack Eichel – 23 Sam Reinhart
82 Marcus Foligno – 22 Johan Larsson – 12 Brian Gionta
28 Zemgus Girgensons – 19 Cal O'Reilly – 44 Nicolas Deslauriers
43 Daniel Catenacci – 17 David Legwand – 26 Matt Moulson
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
25 Carlo Colaiacovo – 3 Mark Pysyk
29 Jake McCabe
31 Chad Johnson
The Sabres will begin a three-game homestand at First Niagara Center against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday afternoon. Rick Jeanerette and Rob Ray will call the game from the 200 level and will be joined by special guests throughout the broadcast.
Coverage on Saturday begins at 12:30 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550.