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by Chris Ryndak / Buffalo Sabres

Things looked a little bit different at Buffalo Sabres practice at First Niagara Center on Wednesday. The skaters were put into three different groups and organized by jersey color: Gold, White and Blue.

A 3-on-3 tournament then commenced with assistant coach Tom Coolen serving as the lone official.

Tyler Ennis’ team finished in second place and he thought it had a lot to do with the guy in stripes.

“I think it came down to Tommy Coolen’s reffing,” Ennis said with a smile. “It was basically determined because of a couple bad calls. We’ll have to have a chat with him later.”

The Sabres will play their final games of the season this weekend before departing for the summer. They’ll be in Columbus on Friday and will host the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday. With time winding down, Wednesday was a good day to let the players let loose a little on the ice.

“Those days are always fun. It kind of brings you back to your childhood a little bit,” defenseman Zach Bogosian said.

Bogosian’s team also fell short in the tournament so he wasn’t quite happy with the officiating either. One player jokingly scribbled “TC – Nominated Worst Ref Ever” on the dry-erase board in the dressing room.

“Yeah, he is. I can actually say that to you guys,” Bogosian said. “If this was a normal game, I’d probably keep my mouth shut, but Tommy Coolen, you’ve got to go to referee school. Sorry.

“I was all over him all game. I probably didn’t shut up. I usually keep my mouth shut towards the refs, but I had to give him a little bit of heat out there.”

Sabres coach Ted Nolan thought a change of pace would serve the group well. The team is coming off a win on Monday and, after playing three games in four nights, they had Tuesday off. They’ll go back to a more traditional practice on Thursday.

“Sometimes you can work the guys without even knowing they’re working. A 3-on-3 tournament, we used to do that once a week in junior hockey,” he said. “It’s good for your conditioning. It’s good to read and react. It’s good to see who competes on a regular basis.”

One of the games went into double overtime, meaning a 2-on-2 sudden death. Nolan wasn’t on the bench for tournament, but disagreed with some of the strategies employed by the teams.

“I would’ve pulled the goalie and made it 3-on-2, myself,” he said.

Since the NHL Trade Deadline on March 2, the Sabres have had to fill voids in the lineup with less experienced players from the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League.

The team’s three top centers in particular have been learning on the fly. Johan Larsson, Mikhail Grigorenko and Philip Varone have been trying to make the most of it and show they’re ready to compete for full-time jobs in the NHL next season.

Their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by some of the more veteran members of the team.

“The last few weeks, I think we’ve competed hard,” Bogosian said. “For me, when I was first coming into the League, you realize that every night was a tough night. If you take a night off, it’ll come back to bite you a little bit.

“The compete level and all of that has been good to see. We’ve played hard. We’ve got to learn how to close out games a little bit. But it’s been good to see those young guys have big roles.”

Ennis has a sense of what they’re going through. In his first professional season in 2009-10, he spent 69 games in the American Hockey League before he got an extended look with the Sabres in March and April. He played nine games in Buffalo at the end of the year and stayed up through the team’s playoff series against the Boston Bruins.

“It got me ready to become a full-time NHLer,” he said. “I had a little taste of it one game in November and then when I got called up in March and played in the playoffs against Boston, it got me ready for how intense the game is, how hard it is, how much it takes to stay in the League. I can’t get wait to get back to the playoffs.”

Larsson has played on the top line since March 11. He, Ennis and Moulson each had a goal and two assists in their first game together and have been clicking ever since. In the 10 games they’ve played together, Moulson has four goals and six assists, Ennis has four goals and five assists and Larsson has three goals and six assists.

Ennis has really liked Larsson’s game as of late.

“He’s really taken advantage of the opportunity he’s been given. He’s working hard,” Ennis said. “A lot of nights, he’s our best player. He’s been great for my line, personally, in the D zone. We’ve been spending less time down there. He competes every shift and he’s fighting for his NHL life.”

Matt Hackett joined the team on the ice for the first time since the game in Colorado on March 28. He’s been dealing with some soreness and swelling in his surgically repaired right knee and the team doctors have been cautious in how he approaches his workouts. He may not play in either of the team’s final games.

“He looked good. He had a little goalie session before we played the 3-on-3 but he looked good today,” he said. “He feels good. We’ll go from here.”

Defenseman Andre Benoit left Monday’s game with an upper-body injury and did not practice on Wednesday. Nolan hopes to have an update on his condition by Thursday.

The Sabres have only five healthy defensemen on the roster if Benoit is unable to play, so they’d likely have to make a recall from Rochester. The Amerks have three games this weekend. They start in Lake Erie on Thursday. They then host the Toronto Marlies on Friday before going to Toronto for an afternoon game on Saturday.

Sabres Assistant Coach/3-on-3 Tournament Referee Tom Coolen

TEAM WHITE (3-on-3 Champions)
Brian Gionta
Johan Larsson
Marcus Foligno
Zac Dalpe
Tyson Strachan

TEAM GOLD (Runners-Up)
Patrick Kaleta
Tyler Ennis
Nicolas Deslauriers
Mikhail Grigorenko
Cody Hodgson
Rasmus Ristolainen

Matt Moulson

Philip Varone
Matt Ellis
Zach Bogosian
Nikita Zadorov
Andrej Meszaros

Anders Lindback
Matt Hackett

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