Since the second half of last season, Johan Larsson's primary role for the Buffalo Sabres has been as the center on their shutdown checking line between Marcus Foligno and Brian Gionta. There, he's served as a pest of a player that is capable of keeping play in the offensive zone and drawing penalties against opponents' top lines.
Tonight, the Sabres are welcoming the Pittsburgh Penguins into KeyBank Center, a team that has three lines worth of top-line talent. Pittsburgh has Sidney Crosby - playing as well as ever - centering one line, Evgeni Malkin centering the next and Phil Kessel coming over the boards on their third line.
Video: Preview: BUF vs. PIT (11/19/16)
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma coached Crosby and Malkin to a Stanley Cup in 2009, so he knows the Penguins' depth as well as anyone. So, with his top two centers out again in Ryan O'Reilly and Jack Eichel, he changed his own lines accordingly, promoting Larsson to top-line center between Evander Kane and Kyle Okposo.
"Really more of a matchup situation against the opponent than [anything] else," Bylsma said of the change. "I think he'll be able to do that, be able to play against any of the top two lines against Crosby or Malkin, so that was kind of the thought about it."
Crosby started his season late due to a concussion, so he's only played 11 games. Yet he still ranks second in the League with 11 goals and has four assists, including a beauty in the Penguins' overtime win against the New York Islanders on Friday night. Having said all of that, Larsson emphasized the importance of Buffalo worrying about its own game more so than any opponent.
The Sabres spoke Friday about eliminating the momentary miscues that have led to opponents' scoring chances during their current six-game winless streak.
"We have to be aware when he's out there, he's a good player," Larsson said of Crosby. "But we need to focus on our play and come out with our game plan and play our game."
Watch: Dan Bylsma | Cal O'Reilly | Cole Schneider | Kyle Okposo
Sam Reinhart has been centering Kane and Okposo during O'Reilly's absence thus far, but he took Larsson's place skating between Foligno and Gionta on Saturday morning. Bylsma said that who we see on the ice and when depends on matchup situations. Derek Grant will substitute for some defensive zone faceoffs, as he has often in recent games, while Reinhart will see more opportunities on the offensive zone.
Meanwhile, the Sabres added more depth at the center position in Cal O'Reilly, who was recalled from Rochester along with Cole Schneider this morning. He'll center a line with Zemgus Girgensons and Matt Moulson while also immediately joining the Sabres' second power-play unit.
O'Reilly skated 39:09 of power-play ice time in 20 games with the Sabres last season.
"I think it's important that you put players in situations and opportunities that they can help in and I think he can be that guy," Bylsma said. "He has poise and confidence with the puck and every game he's played I think for us in Buffalo he's been on the power play. I think he can add to that second unit being a poised puck guy, controlling the play, passing for us there and he will."
Coverage of the game tonight begins at 6:30 p.m. with the TOPS Pregame Show on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops between the Sabres and Penguins at 7 p.m.
If you're coming down to the game tonight (tickets are still available) make sure to check out today's edition of Sharpen Up for information on Thruway closures and detour routes.
Anders Nilsson returns to the net
Video: NILSSON: Pregame Interview
Nilsson will make his first start since an overtime loss to New Jersey on Nov. 11. He's been solid in four starts for the Sabres this season, posting a 1-1-2 record with a .942 save percentage and a 1.96 goals-against average.
Nilsson said staying patient will be a key for him against a team that possesses as much offensive talent as the Penguins.
"For a goalie, you can't think. If you start thinking out there, you end up being behind in the play so no matter who comes down there you're trying to be patient and read the play as it develops," Nilsson said.
9 Evander Kane - 22 Johan Larsson - 21 Kyle Okposo
82 Marcus Foligno - 23 Sam Reinhart - 12 Brian Gionta
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 19 Cal O'Reilly - 26 Matt Moulson
48 William Carrier - 27 Derek Grant - 10 Cole Schneider
4 Josh Gorges - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe - 6 Cody Franson
41 Justin Falk - 38 Taylor Fedun
31 Anders Nilsson
40 Robin Lehner