Ten minutes after their practice concluded on Monday morning, Ryan O'Reilly and a group of his fellow Buffalo Sabres forwards remained on the ice, maneuvering the puck around a propped up box and shooting between the top of a rounded net and the bottom of the crossbar.
O'Reilly Drills were back in session, and Sabres practice felt like Sabres practice again.
More minutes had passed by the time O'Reilly, out 11 games with a lower-body injury, finally returned to the Sabres' dressing room and spoke about joining his teammates at practice for the first time in nearly a month.
"It's nice to be back," he said. "Hopefully things go well and I can play the next game, but it definitely feels like a long time, just watching the practices and watching games – so it's nice to be back there with the guys."
Buffalo's next game is Wednesday against the Montreal Canadiens at First Niagara Center, and O'Reilly's return to a full practice suggests that barring any complications, he could be ready to go. If it were up to him, he said he would have played against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday afternoon.
"He went out for an hour and a half the day of the Carolina game, from 8-9:30," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "He came off the ice and he said, 'I can play today.' He said, 'I'm not sure how much I'll have in the tank, but I want to play at 1 o'clock today.'
"Obviously that wasn't going to happen, but today was an important day … Today's a full practice back with the team and a good indicator of where he's at."
LOOKING AT THE NEW LINES
With O'Reilly returning, Bylsma was tasked with making the difficult decision of deciding where he'll fit into the lineup. The Sabres have maintained the same lines since a home game against Calgary on March 3, and the chemistry has shown.
But, with the team's top centerman back in the fold, there were bound to be changes. Here's what the lines looked like on Monday:
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
43 Daniel Catenacci / 19 Cal O'Reilly – 17 David Legwand – 26 Matt Moulson
Bylsma had a few choices to make, none more notable than what he was going to do with the line of Evander Kane, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, one that has seen the team's three young stars begin to gel rapidly over their last few games.
As tempting as it may have been to keep them together, O'Reilly needs wingers too and Bylsma said it was with a "long-term" outlook that he decided Kane was the right fit. Deslauriers practiced alongside them on Monday – he scored twice as O'Reilly's wingman early in the season – but Bylsma said Ryan's brother Cal may be used in that spot at times as well.
Deslauriers and Kane rank first and second on the Sabres in hits, making for an interesting dynamic on the top line.
"I think it's good," Kane said. "I think when [Deslauriers] saw he had an orange jersey on, he kind of started looking at me and [O'Reilly] like, 'What is going on?' But he's a guy [who] can play up-and-down the lineup because he does have a unique skill. He has really good hands in tight, he can finish as we've seen and he cellies just like me and [O'Reilly] like to do."
In forming that line, Bylsma also made the choice to keep Reinhart with Eichel rather than reuniting him with O'Reilly. Reinhart has spent 431:23 of 5-on-5 ice time alongside O'Reilly, by far his most with any teammate. When both are on the ice in 5-on-5 situations, the Sabres average 2.36 goals per 60 minutes as opposed to 1.95 goals against according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com.
Those numbers compare favorably to when Reinhart shares the ice with Eichel (1.91 goals per 60 and 2.63 goals against). But while they admitted there was a learning curve when it came to playing together, they seem to have put it behind them. Two of the three 5-on-5 goals Eichel and Reinhart have connected on this season have come in the last three games.
One came from Eichel to Reinhart against the Rangers:
The other from Reinhart to Eichel against the Hurricanes:
"I think there are different possibilities that I've certainly looked at," Bylsma said. "Seeing Sam play really well next to Jack has been one of the deciding factors in keeping them together."
One line did remain unaltered on Monday, that being the combination of Foligno, Larsson and Gionta. Not only have they matched up well defensively against other teams' top lines, they've also produced four goals in their last five outings and Foligno has points in three straight.
"We're without Tyler Ennis right now in that mix of what our lines might look like or could look like down the road," Bylsma said. "Do you think about moving Marcus up to a different line? I think that the consistency on that line with Larsson and Gionta is an important factor for his success."
UPDATE ON ENNIS
Ennis remained absent from practice with a concussion on Monday but, with less than four weeks remaining in the season, Bylsma wasn’t ready to rule out his potential return quite yet.
"I'm still holding out hope," Bylsma said. "He is getting better, and that's really why I hold out hope for him. If he has been stagnant or it hasn't been improving, we're getting close to the time where you say 'he might not,' but he has improved, he is improving."
Ennis has been out since sustaining the injury on Dec. 30.
The Sabres return to action against the Canadiens for the fifth and final time this season Wednesday night at First Niagara Center. The two teams have split the season series thus far, with the Canadiens earning a 4-2 win in their last meeting in Montreal on Thursday.
Coverage on Wednesday begins at 6:30 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550.