Matt Hunwick slid to the middle of the ice, complying to the demands of teammates who were prodding him to lead their post-practice stretch at KeyBank Center on Thursday afternoon.
Although he's appeared in just five games this season, the veteran Hunwick has earned the respect of his teammates and coaches for his preparedness and professionalism. Take it from Zach Bogosian, for whom Hunwick has filled in the past two games due to a lower-body injury.
"He's a hell of a teammate, hell of a guy," Bogosian said. "[He's] brought that veteran presence. Just a super nice person, a guy that guys want to be around and joke around with. He brings a lot to our locker room."
Marco Scandella, another veteran on the Sabres defense corps, had similarly nice things to say.
"He's pretty quiet, but just a goodhearted guy, a good guy to have on your team," Scandella said. "He's a good teammate. He's been around a long time. He's a great skater out there. He helps out with communication, keeping everyone calm."
Hunwick's assimilation into the Sabres dressing room was delayed due to a neck injury he sustained during the offseason, forcing him to miss the first 33 games of the season. He didn't appear in a practice with the team until Nov. 29 and didn't make his season debut until Dec. 16.
Since then, his ice time has been sporadic. He played the next game after making his season debut, then waited until Jan. 30 before dressing a third time. Five contests passed after that before Bogosian's injury created a void for Hunwick to fill in Buffalo's last two games against Winnipeg and New York.
Through it all, Phil Housley has maintained that the lack of consistent ice time has boiled down to the team's depth on the back end. The Sabres have eight defensemen on the roster, with a ninth in Rochester for a conditioning stint in Casey Nelson.
When Hunwick has been called upon, he's fit in well. Housley complimented the defenseman's game after he returned to the lineup against Winnipeg on Sunday, skating on a pair with Rasmus Dahlin.
"He was very steady, his gaps were good, he was very good in the defensive zone, he was strong on the puck," Housley said. "I like the way he was passing the puck on the outlet. He just looked like his normal self out there."
Hunwick found himself in a similar situation last season, his lone with the Penguins, when he sustained an early-season concussion and went on to play just 42 games.
"You just have to stay ready as much as you can, you try and work on as much as you can after practice and stay sharp mentally," Hunwick said. "It's not necessarily easy, but at the same time you're excited to get back into the lineup and help contribute."
The work he's put in has made an impression.
"I feel like he's just a really good pro about focusing every day on just getting better," Scandella said. "He was in a position where he didn't play that much for a while but stepping in and being ready, that's part of being a good pro, being a veteran guy. I think he's done a great job."
Hunwick was part of back-to-back defensive efforts in which the Sabres held the Jets and Islanders to a combined four goals, stemming from a team-wide emphasis on improved play without the puck. He matched his season-high with 18:24 of ice time against the Islanders.
"I think the teams that we've played lately too, you see Winnipeg, they're a Stanley Cup-contending team," he said. "New York's the same way, the Islanders. So, those are the fun games. I enjoy playing teams that are heavy and battling. It engages you early on and makes for a fun game, in my opinion."
Video: AFTER PRACTICE: Housley
Bogosian was back on the ice with his teammates, skating on a fourth defense pair with Nathan Beaulieu. The same goes for Casey Mittelstadt, who was back skating as an extra forward after missing the game against the Islanders with a lower-body injury.
Housley did not rule either player out for Friday's home game against the New York Rangers.
"It was good to see them out there in a real practice," Housley said. "We'll know tomorrow at the pregame skate, but it's good that they're getting up to speed."
Here's how the Sabres lined up on Thursday:
53 Jeff Skinner - 9 Jack Eichel - 29 Jason Pominville
43 Conor Sheary - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 23 Sam Reinhart
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 22 Johan Larsson - 21 Kyle Okposo
49 C.J. Smith - 17 Vladimir Sobotka - 72 Tage Thompson
37 Casey Mittelstadt
6 Marco Scandella - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
26 Rasmus Dahlin - 48 Matt Hunwick
19 Jake McCabe - 24 Lawrence Pilut
82 Nathan Beaulieu - 4 Zach Bogosian
35 Linus Ullmark
40 Carter Hutton