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Reinhart's assist total shows growth as a playmaker

Ennis takes another step toward returning; Kulikov week-to-week

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

The numbers don't lie: With nine points in his last nine games, Sam Reinhart is currently in the midst of the most productive stretch of his young NHL career. Whether or not he felt it's been his best stretch was another question altogether, and he took a second to think before answering that question on Monday.

"Yeah, probably," Reinhart said. "I, mean, numbers-wise sure, yeah, but just how I'm feeling consistency-wise, the consistency has stepped up and in an 82-game schedule that's the most important thing you can have."

At age 21, Reinhart is on pace to score 50 points this season, up from the 42 he scored as a rookie in 2015-16. How he's gotten those points, however, has changed significantly. Reinhart had 19 assists in 79 games last season; he already has 16 in 39 games this season. 

Reinhart said he's always thought of himself as more of a distributing playmaker - an "assist guy," as he put it - than a goal scorer, and he chuckled at the idea that there's been any change in his game to lead to the dramatic spike in his numbers from a year ago.

"There's no reason for it," he said. "I don't think it's anything that's changed, anything I've done differently. I'm still doing the same things, having the same mindset offensively and obviously guys are putting it into the net."

It's not as if Reinhart's helpers have been a matter of luck, either. Thirteen of his 16 assists have been primary, a number that leads the Sabres and, according to puckalytics.com, is tied for 19th in the NHL. 

Reinhart's last few games alone shows the number of ways he's able to create, whether it's intentionally shooting off the goalie's pad to create a rebound as he did in New York last Tuesday or waiting for a passing lane to open through the middle of the ice as he did on the goal below against Winnipeg on Saturday.

Video: WPG@BUF: O'Reilly scores through two five-holes

Before Reinhart makes his pass to Ryan O'Reilly on that goal, he gets back as the first forward into the offensive zone which allows him to steal the puck from Winnipeg defenseman Jacob Trouba on the forecheck. It's this area where Reinhart's coach believes he's made the most dramatic improvement since his rookie season. 

"The one thing I think he has done a lot better and continues to improve on is his engagement, his battle," Bylsma said. "Ryan's goal at the end of the first period is a great example of that. He's in on the forecheck, wins the puck on the forecheck there as F1 and then turns it into an offensive play giving Ryan the pass and the goal there. I think he's given himself the opportunity to be a play maker by the way he's competed, the way he's battled the way he's gotten to pucks."

With that being said, perhaps it's no coincidence that a good dose of Reinhart's helpers this season have come from behind the net. Below, you can watch two instances in which Reinhart retrieves the puck behind the goal line and makes a quick pass under pressure to feed an oncoming forward from the month of December alone: 

Video: BOS@BUF: Kane scores as wrist shot sneaks past Rask

Video: BUF@FLA: Ristolainen lights the lamp through traffic

"I think guys are kind of finding lanes," Reinhart said. "It's nice being behind there. You're seeing everything. The defenseman, they're kind of turned around, everyone's turned around, so it's hard to defend back there."

Where Reinhart plays going forward remains a consideration for Bylsma. On one hand, playing him at center allows Bylsma to spread his talent throughout the lineup with Jack Eichel and O'Reilly also playing down the middle. On the other hand, playing Reinhart on the wing alongside either Eichel or O'Reilly allows Bylsma to get more minutes out of one of his more talented playmakers.

The answer in the last game was a bit of both. Reinhart played the majority of the game at center, but took the ice as a top-six wing in some situations, like his goal-scoring shift with O'Reilly in the final minute of the first period. He was used alongside Eichel as well, a duo that Bylsma said reads off each other as well as any two players on the team.

Reinhart and Eichel shared a line at practice on Monday, which you can find more on in a new edition of Sabres in :90 with Brian Duff.

Video: Monday's Sabres in :90

As to whether he stays with Eichel or plays center, Reinhart himself is indifferent. As long as he stays consistent, expect the assists to keep coming.

 

Ennis continues to progress

Tyler Ennis has been skating with the team while they've been at home since Dec. 29, but his involvement in practice on Monday saw him take another step forward in that he competed in battle drills along the wall. 

Ennis said afterward that he feels close to 100 percent, but added that he'd need to have further conversations with team doctors before speculating on a potential return to the lineup. He's missed 27 games since undergoing surgery on his groin on Nov. 10.

"What I liked what I was saw was that he was able to compete," Bylsma said. "We had some battles in the corner and some 1-on-1's in the D-zone there; he had Justin Falk leaning on him, and [Zach] Bogosian leaning on him, and [Cody] Franson leaning on him so he had some battles. He needed to get tested in those areas, stressing his mid-section, stressing his groin, and him saying it went good means he thinks he responded well to having that pressure."

 

Monday's Practice

William Carrier returned to the ice after missing the last two games with an illness and, according to Bylsma, regaining the 13 pounds he had lost in the process. He skated on a line with Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo. 

Defensemen Josh Gorges (hip) and Dmitry Kulikov (lower back) both were absent. Gorges, who has missed two of the last three games, remains day-to-day while Kulikov's timetable has been extended into the range of weeks. 

Bylsma didn't commit to the idea that the lines at practice will be the same as the ones we see against Philadelphia on Tuesday; he said they were made with the possibility of some forwards being absent due to illness. Having said that, you can take a look at Monday's lines below.

82 Marcus Foligno - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
9 Evander Kane - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 12 Brian Gionta
48 William Carrier/63 Tyler Ennis - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
44 Nicolas Deslauriers/56 Justin Bailey - 27 Derek Grant - 26 Matt Moulson

29 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
47 Zach Bogosian - 6 Cody Franson
41 Justin Falk - 38 Taylor Fedun

40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson

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