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PYSYK RETURNS TO PRACTICE AS SABRES CONTINUE POWER-PLAY WORK

by Jourdon LaBarber / Buffalo Sabres

Mark Pysyk said that it felt like it had been a month since he'd last seen his teammates. It's been nearly two since he's played alongside them in a game, but he took another step forward when he returned to practice with the Buffalo Sabres on Friday at First Niagara Center.

The defenseman has missed the last 20 games with a lower-body injury.

"I felt good, real good," Pysyk said afterward. "I've been on the ice the last three or four days and it's been good since I've been on the ice. Hopefully it continues to go that way."

Pysyk's last game came against Dallas on Nov. 17. He played 15:49 of ice time in that game and even practiced the following day. On Nov. 19, he left the team's morning skate in St. Louis early and was announced as day-to-day with a bone bruise.

Eventually, however, they learned that the bruise was actually a small break. Day-to-day quickly became week-to-week, with the defenseman working hard to stay occupied in the gym. At one point, he said, he was wearing a boot on his injured foot and riding an exercise bike with the other.

"At the start, [I thought] it wouldn't be too long," Pysyk said. "It was pretty boring, coming in here and watching guys play for a little more than a month. It's frustrating but there's nothing you can really do. You've got to come back and be the best that you can and hopefully get back in the lineup here."

A right-hand shot, Pysyk said he's ready to play on either side upon his return. After playing at the right defensive position to begin the season, he had moved to the offside on a pair with Cody Franson for his final game prior to the injury.

"Mark's a great player, he's a young kid that's very calm out there," Franson said. "He plays the game very patiently, he doesn't panic, he doesn’t really get out of position and he's pretty well-rounded. Any time you can get a guy like him back, you're fortunate."

Sabres coach Dan Bylsma also offered an update on the status of injured goaltender Robin Lehner, who practiced again with the team on Friday as he continues to work his way back from a high ankle sprain toward a rehab stint in Rochester. The coach said Lehner and Pysyk are on similar timetables.

"I would anticipate that we would see three to four more or five more practices before we consider a possible return to play [for Lehner]," Bylsma said. "Mark Pysyk is probably on a similar number of days right now."


PROGRESSION ON POWER PLAY
After snapping a seven-game scoreless drought on the power play on Thursday night, the Sabres dedicated almost the entirety of their practice to it on Friday. Buffalo generated 15 shots combined on four power-play opportunities against an Islanders penalty kill that hadn't allowed a goal in 15 games.

"We got a lot of momentum off it yesterday," Sabres captain Brian Gionta said. "We were moving the puck well; we had a lot of good chances and a lot of good looks. Obviously we scored a goal, but it was more about the chances we got so we wanted to continue to stay with that today."

Right off the bat on Thursday, the Sabres' power play looked better than it had in recent games. While they eventually scored on their fourth chance, it was their first attempt – in which they put seven shots on goal – that may have been the one that reignited a unit that ranked second in the League at one point in December.

"I thought we executed well, our entries were quite good and that's probably the meat and potatoes of your power play," Franson said. "When you can enter well you get more zone time and when you can execute, you tend to generate more chances.

When they finally did score, it was the product of a key change that Bylsma had made to the units entering the game. The coach put two of his top scorers in Jack Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly together on the same unit, and Eichel was able to squeeze a pass through net-front traffic to set up O'Reilly for the score.

"I think the tweak in our power-play units helped us achieve [getting back to where they want to be]," Bylsma said. "With Jack flipping, getting on his strong side, it seemed to free up [forward Evander Kane] a little bit to get his shot off as well."

Kane was on a separate unit from Eichel, joined by Gionta, Franson, Matt Moulson and Johan Larsson. Eichel and O'Reilly's unit was rounded out by Jamie McGinn, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen.


AN AFTERNOON WITH THE RED WINGS
The Sabres will ring in the New Year when they host the Detroit Red Wings in a matinee on Saturday at First Niagara Center. The teams have split a pair of games at Joe Louis Arena this season, with Detroit taking the first game 5-4 in a shootout on Dec. 2 and Buffalo claiming a 2-1 win on Dec. 14.

"We play them hard," Gionta said. "There are a few guys up front that can really make you pay with turnovers in the neutral zone. I think we've got to play them the same way we've been playing the last couple games – when we're a better team we're getting pucks in behind their D, were pushing that forecheck and we're getting in-zone time."

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.

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