With seven games left in the regular season for the Buffalo Sabres, the remaining time serves as an opportunity for the team to continue to prove to themselves exactly what level they're capable of playing at. They did that on Saturday night, winning 5-2 against a Toronto Maple Leafs team still fighting to maintain a spot in the postseason.
The same is true on an individual level, particularly for players like Tyler Ennis and Dmitry Kulikov. Both have dealt with injuries and therefore inconsistency this season and are looking to end on a positive note.
Ennis and Kulikov both enjoyed their first multi-point outings of the season on Saturday, and both returned to significant roles - Ennis on the top line and Kulikov on the top defensive pair - for practice at HarborCenter on Sunday.
For both players, the game against Toronto was among their best of the season. Ennis, playing on a line with Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo, gave a reminder of his acrobatic abilities in the offensive zone with a turn-around swing pass across the net to set up an O'Reilly goal in the first period. Later, he made the pass to set up a one-time goal for Kulikov on the power play.
Video: TOR@BUF: O'Reilly, Ennis connect for nifty goal
Surgery on his groin in November has limited Ennis' season to just 44 games, an especially bad break considering he only played 23 games due to multiple injuries last season. He has just four goals and eight assists for 12 points this season, and had seen diminished ice time until being promoted to play on a line with O'Reilly and Jack Eichel in Anaheim on March 17.
Dan Bylsma thought back to Buffalo's game in San Jose earlier this month as an example of what earned Ennis another crack at the top line.
"We saw some spurts form Tyler, getting his jump back and then previously before we went on the road [in California] there were a couple really good examples of him kind of showing what he can do, playing in the offensive zone and dodging and weaving and losing guys with his agility.
"I think you saw that maybe at it's best in Anaheim, playing with those guys, and he's continued that. I thought last night was probably his best game of the year."
With more ice time, Ennis said, comes more comfort.
"Most of us, especially offensive guys, are guys that kind of play better when we get the flow of the game, we get more minutes," he said. "I couldn't ask for better linemates than Ryan and Kyle, two smart players who are reliable defensively, good guys. I thought we had some great jump last night."
Kulikov, meanwhile, came to training camp late due to his involvement at the World Cup of Hockey. After only two days of practice with his new team, a hard hit into the bench door during his preseason debut against Toronto aggravated a preexisting lower-back injury, one that would affect him for nearly the entirety of the season.
Kulikov missed three separate stretches of the season with that injury, time that not only could've been better spent on the ice but also growing comfortable in a new dressing room. He missed another stretch with a neck injury most recently, from which he returned on Saturday to score a goal and an assist.
Video: TOR@BUF: Kulikov scores PPG in 500th NHL game
"I think Dmitry, this last time off was maybe the most beneficial for him," Bylsma said. "His two practices last week were the best he's looked … I feel now, the way he's practiced and the way he's looked and the way he's skated, it looks like he's gotten by all that and is at his best right now."
The Sabres return to play at home on Monday against another division opponent in the Florida Panthers. For Ennis, Kulikov and the team itself, it's the first of seven more chances to prove that their capable of playing the way they did against Toronto on a daily basis.
"I think we have to play like we know we can play," Ennis said. "I think [Toronto] was a good example."
63 Tyler Ennis - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
82 Marcus Foligno - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
9 Evander Kane - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 12 Brian Gionta
48 William Carrier - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 26 Matt Moulson
29 Jake McCabe - 77 Dmitry Kulikov
4 Josh Gorges - 41 Justin Falk
67 Brady Austin - 47 Zach Bogosian
44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson