Ralph Krueger was asked about the effectiveness of his fourth line on Sunday, and his response offered some insight into his coaching philosophy.
"Which one is the fourth line?" he retorted.
Krueger was being playful, but his point stood. The line in question was that of Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, and Kyle Okposo, and the coach went on to explain why he doesn't view that trio - or any others - in terms of rank.
"I generally don't think [that way]," Krueger said. "There's the Eichel line, there's the Larsson line, there's the Johansson line, and we've got the Mittelstadt line right now. Really, there's different roles at different times.
"If you look at when we were closing a game out in Pittsburgh, that line, as an example, was one of only two lines left in the last five minutes."
Krueger leaned heavily on Larsson and Girgensons when the Sabres were looking to close their victory over the Penguins last Thursday. The two forwards played 11 and 10 shifts in the third period, respectively, and played key roles on three penalty kills.
Meanwhile, Casey Mittelstadt - who had earned two assists already in that game - only saw one shift after the 5:00 mark of the third. Krueger has emphasized the importance of that role acceptance in the early going, with players being ready based on situational needs.
"I'm trying to make sure that everybody understands they're important," Krueger said. "If you've killed four minutes and somebody else has played power play [for] eight, those might be equal minutes as far as the work and the sacrifice and the investment of energy you have.
"I think that gets lost a lot in the game today, how valuable the players are who play those defensively physical and punishing minutes for us."
Though the Larsson line can generally be counted on for its defensive commitment and offensive simplicity, the trio has shown an ability to contribute on the score sheet so far as well. Girgensons and Okposo both had breakaway chances in Pittsburgh. A heavy forecheck led to a crucial goal from Okposo against New Jersey on Saturday.
Against the Devils, in 8:28 with the three forwards on the ice at five-on-five, shots attempts were in Buffalo's favor by a margin of 8-2. It was the highest shot attempt share of any of the Sabres' four lines.
"They lead the way in really playing simple," Krueger said. "Hard forechecking, they're getting the pucks in deep, they're getting on it, they're having some strong offensive shifts."
Look no further than Okposo for an example of role acceptance. He skated just 10:05 Thursday but still managed to make a vital impact at a time when the Sabres' deficit had just been cut to one. Krueger views the veteran as an option to jump up in the lineup and on the power play when the situation calls for it.
Video: NJD@BUF: Okposo redirects goal from in front
"I think Kyle has completely from day one, in every practice since the 13th of September, has been attempting to do exactly what we're asking in every drill on the ice and understanding what we need from him is possibly different from in the past," Krueger said. "The ability, though, to inject him in any power play at any time is of course an asset.
"We need depth in everything we do. But his attitude through this is what's carrying him. If it's 10 minutes or it's going to be 18, we're convinced that he put in the work this summer to have the foundation to be able to do that."
Okposo said he enters each day with the same mindset, regardless of his role or ice time.
"Go out there and be the best player that I can be," he said. "I'm focusing on what I can do to be the best and that's it. There's not external pressure, there's no external factors that are entering into my brain. It doesn't matter if I play five minutes or 20 minutes.
"I'm going to go out there and be the best I can in that shift and that's all I can control. That's what I'm focused on."
Another question Sunday that brought a smirk out of Krueger - does he plan on matching his Buffalo Bills counterpart, Sean McDermott, in leading his team to a 3-0 start?
"It is a serious question with a smile, but I think that we need to look at what's best for the Sabres every day," Krueger said. "Today's just another day where we're trying to find some growth and some learners and make the team better tomorrow night. If we're talking that language, we're going to continue to be competitive here."
Daily improvement has been a mantra of Krueger's since the outset of training camp. Okposo explained how the Sabres can find opportunities to get better on a day like Sunday, when the team stayed off the ice.
"There's tons of stuff you can do," Okposo said. "You can get a little workout, you can recover, you can get in the cold tub, you can go shoot pucks, you can stick handle. There are so many things that [the media doesn't] see that gets done on a daily basis if we're not skating and even if we are.
"I think that's something that, since I've been here, this year has been exponentially better with the group becoming professionals and it's great to see everybody kind of taking that next step. You see guys really behind the scenes doing the little things. I think that's only going to continue to get better and continue to help our team."
Off to Columbus
The Sabres departed for Columbus Sunday afternoon, where they'll meet the 0-2 Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Monday. The two teams split a pair of contests in the preseason, albeit with very different rosters.
The Blue Jackets dropped their home opener against Toronto, then lost 7-2 in Pittsburgh on Saturday.
"We're expecting a strong resistance in Columbus," Krueger said. "The coaching staff is very strong there and they will come hard in that game and fight for their first win. We need to be a smart team and stick to our plan and make it about us and about continuing to play the way we are.
"We played them twice in the preseason, which gave us opportunity on really both sides, for them and for us, to get to know each other better. I'm sure strategically it will be a tight game. I'm expecting a real tight one-goal game tomorrow."