PITTSBURGH – Through nine games this season, the Buffalo Sabres have changed their lines on a nearly game-by-game basis as they continue to search for the right mix on a team with several new faces.
At Thursday’s morning skate, however, the lines were exactly the same as in Tuesday’s 4-3 win over Philadelphia, including Nicolas Deslauriers remaining on the top line alongside Ryan O'Reilly and Tyler Ennis.
Clearly, something worked in Philly.
“I think our line played pretty good,” Deslauriers said. “I think we set up the forecheck, I think system-wise we were pretty good. We stuck with the puck, being in front out there just trying to do the same job that I would do on any line just trying to give them more space.”
Buffalo will take the ice again on Thursday night when the Sabres conclude their two-game road trip against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center. 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 with puck drop set for 7 p.m.
Chad Johnson will start in net for the Sabres. After sitting out of Tuesday’s practice for maintenance days, Ennis and Sam Reinhart will both play.
Against the Penguins, Deslauriers will have another shot to contribute as a top-six forward. Prior to the game in Philadelphia, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said that it was important for the 6-foot-1 forward to be himself regardless of who he plays with.
That’s exactly what he did. Deslauriers worked well on the forecheck and helped clear space for Ennis to score the goal that put the Sabres on the board in the first period.
“I think his speed on that line is an added bonus to him being aggressive, him being physical,” Bylsma said. “Some of the success that line had in the offensive zone against Philly was as a result of the forecheck, getting in on the forecheck, creating havoc and starting in the offensive zone.”
“He plays a simpler game, but he does it really well,” O’Reilly said. “He’s physical and he goes to the net. He made some great plays for us. I think me and Ennis, we kind of work together, moving around and supporting each other while he’s the big body playing hard.”
They’ll face a great test on Thursday with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin centering the Penguins’ top two lines.
“We’ve got to limit their chances,” O’Reilly said. “A big thing is staying out of the box, we don’t want to give their top players confidence with the puck. If they get opportunities, they’re going to bury it. We have to make sure we’re playing hard … We have to take away the ice and we have to make sure we’re playing as a unit.”
WEBER RETURNS TO THE LINEUP
While the offensive lines remained the same, Bylsma did make a change to his defensive lineup for Thursday’s game. Mike Weber will return to the ice after sitting out as a healthy scratch in the Sabres’ past two games. Carlo Colaiacovo will be scratched in his place.
Bylsma said that Weber, a Pittsburgh native, has a style that will match up well against the Penguins.
“I think in particular this game we’re going to need his physical style, abrasive brand and it’s going to be at the net,” Bylsma said. “We’re going to see [Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist] at the net, especially on their power play, and that’s where [Weber] is at his best.”
AND BOGO RETURNS TO THE ICE
Another Sabres defenseman inched closer to making his own return to the lineup on Thursday. Zach Bogosian, who has not played this season due to a lower-body injury, returned to the ice for a few minutes at Buffalo’s morning skate.
Bylsma escorting him onto the ice jokingly as his teammates applauded.
“That was a nice treat,” he said. “Obviously my first time back on the ice in a little bit, I’m just taking it a day at a time. I’m sure we’ll just try to get a few ice sessions in, see how everything’s going and try to take it from there.”
While there is still no timetable for his return, Bogosian said that today was a big step forward. He’s participated in workouts and team meetings to this point, but getting on the ice for practice will be integral for him to assimilate into the team’s game plan.
Bogosian previously practiced wearing a red non-contact jersey on Oct. 14, but said that his body did not respond appropriately for him to continue skating without risking further injury.
‘HOW DO YOU STOP THE PITTSBURGH PENGUINS?’
With Bylsma’s return to the bench at Console Energy Center only hours away, Weber said that the Sabres coach had a bit more pep in his step as he anticipated coaching against his former team for the first time.
“I had my normal two cups of coffee and probably was a little more energetic,” Bylsma said, smiling. “But it couldn’t have been that noticeable.”
One aspect of returning to Pittsburgh that Bylsma won’t look forward to is defending against Crosby and Malkin. After coaching Pittsburgh’s superstar pair for six seasons, he’ll find out what it’s like to be on the other side of the coin.
“It was part of our development and growth when I was here to say, ‘How do you stop the Pittsburgh Penguins?’ I have that book that we came up with then,” he said.
Crosby has only three points (1+2) this season, all of which came against Florida on Oct. 20. But Bylsma knows better than to underestimate the talent of his former players.
“I don’t think anybody ever looks at Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin and says, ‘Oh, we’re catching them while they’re not scoring,’” Bylsma said. “You’re always in fear of their ability to score and you always fear their ability on the power play whether they’re at 25 percent or at 0 percent for however long. They still scare you for that ability.”
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who has played every minute of the Penguins’ nine games this season, will rest after earning a 3-1 win in Washington on Friday. Backup Jeff Zatkoff, who has played 21 games in the NHL, will get his first start of the season.
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 63 Tyler Ennis
22 Johan Larsson – 15 Jack Eichel – 23 Sam Reinhart
26 Matt Moulson – 28 Zemgus Girgensons – 12 Brian Gionta
82 Marcus Foligno – 17 David Legwand – 88 Jamie McGinn
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 46 Cody Franson
6 Mike Weber – 3 Mark Pysyk
31 Chad Johnson
35 Linus Ullmark