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'Confident' Girgensons made strong impression at camp

McCabe returns; Camp comes to a close

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Zemgus Girgensons caught a stretch pass from defenseman John Gilmour and turned toward the opposing net, nothing but ice separating him from Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray. He shuffled the puck from his backhand to his forehand and buried it as two defenders struggled to catch up. 

Watching from behind the bench inside PPG Paints Arena, coach Ralph Krueger saw the goal as an act of confidence from the longtime Sabres forward. 

"You could see in Pittsburgh, his goal was really one of passion and one of confidence," Krueger said after practice at KeyBank Center on Sunday morning. "So, he's in a good space."

Video: BUF@PIT: Girgensons beats Murray for equalizer in 3rd

Girgensons is wrapping up his seventh training camp with the Sabres, a span in which he's had to impress upon five different head coaches. He entered this season with two objectives: to show Krueger his ability to play responsibly on defense, and to reignite his confidence on offense. 

If Krueger's assessment of Girgensons' camp on Sunday is any indication, he's been successful to both of those ends thus far.

"Yesterday he was outstanding," Krueger said. "Number one, being a player who truly executes within the framework of what we need defensively, and he is a threat to score. 

"… And he always works 100 percent from the start to the end of practice, so that gives him quite a consistent game during the games. You know exactly what you're getting from him shift in and shift out. [He is] a very important body in our group."

Girgensons was tasked with one of the heaviest defensive workloads in the NHL last season. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, just 15.93 percent of his five-on-five faceoffs were taken in the offensive zone - the lowest mark in the NHL. His 172:58 of shorthanded ice time ranked 16th among league forwards.

Though he prides himself on that defensive game, Girgensons expressed a belief that Krueger's system - which allows players to play instinctually on offense - will allow him to recapture his confidence on offense. He scored 30 points (15+15) in 61 games as a 21-year-old in 2014-15 but has fluctuated between 15 and 18 points since.

"We've definitely been given, by the coach, a little bit more freedom," he said. "Just kind of play the game, think on your own, work with your linemates, read off each other. I think that's the way hockey should be. It's great to see guys are getting more creative. 

"… In the offensive zone, it's more up to players. Be creative, work for each other, create space. It's fun playing hockey like that."

Girgensons has made an impact in the offensive zone in each of his last two outings. Prior to his goal in Pittsburgh, his work on the forecheck against Columbus on Wednesday helped create a goal for linemate Tage Thompson, with whom he skated again at practice on Sunday.

Video: CBJ@BUF: Thompson rockets wrist shot past Merzlikins

Combined with his experience at all three forward positions, he's positioned himself as a valuable asset in the eyes of his new coach.

"He can play up and down the lineup in any position at the drop of a hat which is a valuable tool to coach," Krueger said. "Maybe you want to close the game with a little bit more of a defensive look and he's available there.

"But also, his confidence coming into this year seems to be high. That's only good for us."


Injury Report

Jake McCabe returned to practice after missing the final two preseason games with an upper-body injury. Conor Sheary (lower body) did not practice, though Krueger said he did skate on his own.

"He remains day-to-day," Krueger said. "He had a good skate this morning. We're just keeping him out of the group. We'll re-evaluate that tomorrow morning."

Krueger also issured an update on defenseman Brandon Montour, who has been out since Sept. 19 with a hand injury.

"We're quite optimistic with the way it's evolving, but you want to be careful with those things," Krueger said. "He's able to skate now already and that's gone well, so we're pleased to build on that to keep his legs active. His re-entry will be quicker with that injury than it would be if it were anything lower body.

"Again, let's just concentrate on getting this group started. Brandon's working with our outstanding rehab staff to get back to us as soon as possible. But we'd like to see him within the next few weeks."
 

Camp is over

Video: TRAINING CAMP: Krueger

Sunday marked the final practice of training camp, with Krueger intending to shift the team to its regular-season program beginning on Tuesday. The players will have the day off Monday as Krueger and general manager Jason Botterill work toward finalizing the 23-man roster for opening night.

In the meantime, the remaining players at camp will spend Sunday afternoon watching the Buffalo Bills host the New England Patriots at New Era Field.

"What I'm most pleased about is just the commitment here to try to do his best within the roles that they've been given," Krueger said. "Then there's been a very positive mindset here with all the players that carries into what we need culturally to be able to deal with the pace of the National Hockey League. 

"We're quite pleased where we are today. Training camp officially comes to an end here. We're going to go all together and watch the Bills play the Patriots eye to eye and have a bit of a day off together on the sidelines, cheering our partner and really good friends the Buffalo Bills."

The Sabres practiced with 24 players after assigning defenseman William Borgen to camp with the Rochester Americans. Here's how they lined up:

Forwards

68 Victor Olofsson - 9 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
53 Jeff Skinner - 90 Marcus Johansson - 17 Vladimir Sobotka
13 Jimmy Vesey - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 27 Curtis Lazar
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 22 Johan Larsson - 72 Tage Thompson
81 Remi Elie - 74 Rasmus Asplund

Defensemen: 6 Marco Scandella, 8 Casey Nelson, 10 Henri Jokiharju, 19 Jake McCabe, 26 Rasmus Dahlin, 33 Colin Miller, 55 Rasmus Ristolainen, 58 John Gilmour

Goalies

40 Carter Hutton
35 Linus Ullmark

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