Following their shutout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night, much of the talk coming from the Buffalo Sabres' dressing room was focused on their need to play with more emotion and intensity. Phil Housley said he saw those traits late in their 2-0 loss, but needed to see it from the opening puck drop.
It should be of no surprise, then, that Housley penciled Jordan Nolan's name alongside Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo when he reshuffled his lines for practice on Wednesday. Nolan's play has been a bright spot for the Sabres as of late, so much so that it earned him a promotion to the top six.
"I like the way he attacks the game," Housley said. "He's using his speed, he's getting the opportunity, he's controlling the puck down low in the offensive zone, he's willing to go to the net. He brings a physical element to the game as well."
Video: Sabres Now (11/29/17)
The Sabres acquired Nolan off of waivers from the Los Angeles Kings on Sept. 28, just one week prior to the start of their regular season. He admitted upon coming to Buffalo that he was looking to for an opportunity to contribute more than he had in Los Angeles last season, where he played in just 46 games.
That chance has come in the last week, beginning with his two-goal performance against the Minnesota Wild last Wednesday. Housley had been imploring the Sabres to employ more of a shot mentality, and both of Nolan's goals in that game came on quick shots that beat Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk.
Video: MIN@BUF: Nolan buries wrister top shelf
Video: MIN@BUF: Nolan pots his second from a sharp angle
Nolan's two-goal performance coincided with his move to a line with Okposo and Jacob Josefson, a trio that was short-lived but set the precedent for what he might be able to accomplish playing alongside O'Reilly. In two full games prior to Josefson's ankle injury, the trio combined for three goals and the Sabres generated 55.88 percent of the shot attempts taken while they were on the ice.
"I think when you play with guys who play similar to you, who like hanging on to pucks, like getting the puck deep and like making smart plays, I think it's easy for chemistry to click," Nolan said. "Not saying that the guys I was playing with weren't thinking that way, but Okie's a pretty smart player and [Josefson] is a very smart player. When we've all had that we just kind of clicked, so I think that's important."
What also made that line successful, Okposo said, was their hard work and simplicity. They played heavy on the forecheck and created scoring opportunities as a result, which is a quality that the Sabres are looking to receive more of from throughout their lineup.
"I think he's played extremely well the last five or six games," Okposo said. "He deserves the opportunity that he's getting. I enjoyed playing with him when it was me, him and Joey. He's going to work hard and he's going to go the net, he's going to go win battles in the corners. I feel like we need some more of that."
As memorable as his two goals against Minnesota may have been, Nolan's most notable moment that night may have come after the game. He called upon the Sabres to show more accountability from player to player, referencing his own experience as a young player on a Kings team that won two Stanley Cups. Okposo echoed his sentiment the following morning.
In the week since that loss, the Sabres have earned a win over Edmonton followed by shutout losses against Montreal and Tampa Bay. Okposo characterized the week as having taken two steps forward and one step back - he genuinely believed the Sabres played well in spite of their result in Montreal, but felt they came out flat against the Lightning. The Sabres weren't bad, he said, but they weren't very good either.
Where the Sabres need to continue to improve is in their ability to play a physical game, make life difficult on opposing goaltenders and get shots to the net. Nolan said he's seen growth in the week since the loss to Minnesota; now he'll have a chance to influence consistency on the ice as well.
"I think we need more guys stepping up and bringing that physical presence, talking in the room and on the bench," Nolan said. "I think it's going to spread. I think the more of that we have, the more guys will kind of get on board. Just keep doing what we're doing. Obviously we need to be a little bit more physical at the start of games and have a little more emotion, but we've just got to find a way for it to come."
Video: HOUSLEY: After Practice
Defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Josh Gorges both were absent for maintenance days on Wednesday. Ristolainen left with an apparent injury after being hit hard into the net late in the second period on Tuesday, but returned to begin the third and skated 25:09 in total.
Gorges sat as a healthy scratch Tuesday after playing against Minnesota and Montreal, but missed nine games earlier in the month with a lower-body injury. Housley said the team wanted him to rest with another day of practice awaiting them on Thursday.
Here's how the full lineup looked at practice:
9 Evander Kane - 15 Jack Eichel - 29 Jason Pominville
17 Jordan Nolan - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 22 Johan Larsson - 23 Sam Reinhart
67 Benoit Pouliot - 51 Kyle Criscuolo - 26 Matt Moulson
6 Marco Scandella - 41 Justin Falk
19 Jake McCabe - 93 Victor Antipin
82 Nathan Beaulieu - 47 Zach Bogosian
5 Matt Tennyson
40 Robin Lehner
31 Chad Johnson