TAMPA – Buffalo Sabres interim coach Ted Nolan spoke Thursday afternoon about how he wanted to see how the young nucleus of players on his team would respond to all of the changes that have recently occurred within the organization.
Nolan singled out players like Marcus Foligno, Cody Hodgson, Tyler Myers and Tyler Ennis as players that will form the team’s new leadership core moving forward this season.
Jhonas Enroth could be considered a part of that group as well and has been given the opportunity to earn the job of being a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL. Since the Sabres traded Ryan Miller on Friday, Enroth has been up to the challenge.
Foligno, Hodgson and Myers each recorded a goal and an assist while Enroth turned aside 43 shots Thursday night in Buffalo’s 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Tampa Bay Times Forum.
“Goaltending’s probably 90 percent of this game and if we get good goaltending, have a chance to win and we were opportunistic on our chances,” Nolan said after the game. “I thought Marcus Foligno played a great game for us too, but Jhonas was the backbone for sure.”
Buffalo was also able to spoil a big night for the Lightning. Steven Stamkos returned to the lineup after missing 45 games with a broken right leg and the team announced him as its new captain right before the game. It was also the Lightning debut for Ryan Callahan, whom was acquired on Wednesday from the New York Rangers for Martin St. Louis.
The Sabres had to deal with roster changes of their after the NHL Trade Deadline saw the departures of players like Miller, captain Steve Ott, leading scorer Matt Moulson and penalty killer Cody McCormick. Buffalo added forward Torrey Mitchell and goaltender Michal Neuvirth to their roster Thursday.
The game was the first for both teams since the NHL Trade Deadline passed Wednesday afternoon.
“It was emotional for both teams,” Sabres forward Marcus Foligno said.
In the four consecutive games Enroth has started since the Olympic break, he’s faced shot totals of 33, 38, 39 and 43 and is 3-1-0 in those games. When asked if he believes a player can get into a “zone,” Enroth turned the focus to the things he can control.
“I do believe in that but I also believe in good habits,” he said. “I’ve just been trying to create good habits all year and it’s starting to pay off a little bit now. Things can turn around quick in hockey and I’m just going to try to get ready for tomorrow and do it all over again.
“…I’m not going to say it’s easier to play every game but it’s easier to get into the zone and get into a good rhythm.”
Enroth lost the shutout bid with 2:29 left in the third period when Tyler Johnson scored shorthanded.
“I felt pretty good. I’m pretty pissed off now that I didn’t get the shutout but that’s hockey,” Enroth said.
The Sabres will move forward for the rest of this season with the group that they have. No big changes are imminent and now that players are able to relax about that a little bit. Hodgson said the group was a bit more relaxed heading into the game against Tampa Bay.
“Once you settle down and know where you’re going to be, it’s a lot easier to play the game. When your life outside of hockey is kind of unsure, sometimes that shows up in hockey too,” he said. “It’s nice to get the win here tonight from the full team. Obviously we wanted Jhonas to get the shutout, but I thought he played good again.”
Myers finished the game with 20:37 of ice time and three shots. Looking around the room, he understands that now is the time for him and some of the other players to become leaders on the team both on and off the ice.
“I think we’re right there in the age group where we’re going to have to step up, especially the losing guys that we did this past week,” he said. “I think that those core guys – 23, 24, 25 years old – are going to have to definitely step up and take on a leadership role.”
Foligno and Hodgson started on a line with Chris Stewart, who was playing in his second game with the team after being acquired in the Miller/Ott trade last week. Stewart was a physical presence for much of the night and created a lot of space for players like Hodgson.
“I thought Stewart was really great in the first couple periods too. He was being very physical and that rubs off on people,” Nolan said. “Then all of a sudden Tyler Myers comes into the forefront and starts doing it. It’s contagious. When a couple of your guys start really putting the good efforts in and banging the bodies, it goes on. But Marcus, I thought it was one of his better games since I’ve been here. ”
Stewart, however, left the game after he collided with Lightning goaltender Anders Lindback with about 8:20 to play in the third period when chasing down a loose puck.
The Sabres also lost Zemgus Girgensons to a lower-body injury earlier in the game.
Nolan said that both Stewart and Girgensons would be doubtful to play in the team’s next game on Friday against the Florida Panthers.
Cory Conacher is expected to join the team in Sunrise, Fla. on Friday and be able to play in the game. He was claimed off waivers on Wednesday from Ottawa.
The Sabres are 4-1-0 since coming back from the Olympic break and will look to carry some of that momentum into the game on Friday.
“We had a lot of guys that were on their A-game. I think just the compete level in here is still there and that’s what you want see,” Foligno said. “I think that’s what fans will appreciate is they’re going to know we’re in a tight spot, but the compete level and the character in this room is great and it was good to see tonight.”