For the first time in a long time, the Buffalo Sabres defense will be at full health on Saturday night. Mark Pysyk, absent since sustaining a lower-body injury on Nov. 17, will make his return to the lineup when Buffalo hosts the Washington Capitals at First Niagara Center.
Pysyk played a three-game conditioning stint with the Rochester Americans last weekend and was recalled on Monday. He's sat the last two games for Buffalo – a 3-2 win in Minnesota on Tuesday and a 4-1 loss to Boston on Friday – as a healthy scratch.
With his team in need of a win, however, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma was frank when asked what he can expect from the defenseman in his first game back from injury.
"A lot," he said. "Skating, defending ability with his skating, us being able to get out of trouble and exiting with his skating ability and passing ability. That’s what we saw from him before and that’s what we need from him tonight."
In order to be prepared to do that, Pysyk said, he's been focusing more and more while watching games over the course of his rehabilitation.
"The first few games when I was injured, I was in the weight room during the games, watching the games, but not really focused on it," he said. "As the last couple weeks here have gone, I've been watching certain players in certain situations just to get my mind back into it."
Just as their defense returned to health, the Sabres sustained a hit to their forward depth on Friday. Zemgus Girgensons was feeling better after leaving the game against the Bruins midway through the first period with an upper-body injury, but remains day-to-day and won't play against Washington.
Philip Varone was recalled from Rochester on Saturday and will play in Girgensons' absence. Varone leads the Amerks with 10 goals in 33 games this season and his 19 points rank third on the team. When asked why he was the choice to be called up, Bylsma said that, quite simply, he's playing the best right now.
"I'd like to see him use his skill and ability with the puck and hope to give him some opportunity to do that, not just to be a checker or a fourth-line guy but put him in a spot where he can have his skill and ability and his play-making ability with the puck and have it be a factor in the game," Bylsma said.
Varone, 24, recorded five points (3+2) in 28 games for the Sabres last season, including a two-goal effort against Carolina in his second game.
"I think I proved to myself last year, the first 10 games here, that I can make things happen," he said. "I think I kind of hit a rut towards the end of the season when I was here but I think I can make plays and I'm just going to play a 200-foot game, try to make things happen with the puck and create havoc out there."
Bylsma said that, for the time being, Girgensons will not be placed on injured reserve. In other news, Evander Kane, who limped off the ice with less than two minutes on Friday, felt fine after the game is ready to play against the Capitals according to the coach.
Pregame coverage 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.
SLOWING DOWN THE CAPITALS
Just as they were when they came into First Niagara Center on Dec. 28, the Capitals are red-hot yet again entering the matchup on Saturday. Washington has won five straight games and has earned a point in 23 of its last 25 contests.
The Capitals came out on top in their first two meetings with the Sabres this season, winning 2-0 in Buffalo and 5-2 two days later in Washington. Alex Ovechkin, who leads the team with 26 goals, scored three times in the two games.
In their second year under Barry Trotz, however, the Capitals are far more than just their talented captain.
"I think it's maybe more in the team than just in Ovi," Bylsma said. "You're not just relying on him to score a goal or he's just not relying on a power play to get his opportunity to score. It's more of a team and a team effort from the Capitals under Barry Trotz and his coaching and it makes them, I think, a little bit scarier to be honest."
Braden Holtby, currently on a 22-game point streak (20-0-2), will start in net for Washington and is expected to oppose Chad Johnson for the Sabres. Forward Mike Richards, who signed a one-year deal last week, will make his Capitals debut.