CALGARY - When Marcus Foligno, Johan Larsson and Brian Gionta took the ice as linemates for the first time this season in the third period against Montreal last Thursday, even Buffalo's new additions to the coaching staff could see that they had a knack for playing with each other. Naturally, Dan Bylsma kept the checking trio together for the team's game in Edmonton on Sunday.
The move paid off.
Foligno, Larsson and Gionta were instrumental in keeping one of the League's hottest players off the score sheet in Connor McDavid, and even kept him without a shot until late in the third period. Meanwhile, the trio was able to produce a couple of goals themselves, both off the stick of Brian Gionta.
"It felt normal, it felt comfortable again," Foligno said of the three reuniting against Montreal. "We just know how to read off each other, and I think you saw that last night too against Edmonton. We had really good chemistry out there, smart breakout plays and yeah, we're just happy to be back on a line again."
What we saw from the line in Edmonton was nothing new. The three became a permanent trio in January of last season, and from that point on they were one of the team's most consistent units. After combining for just 23 points prior to Jan. 8, they combined for 50 from that point on.
The offense they're able to generate typically begins in the defensive zone, where they're often called upon to take draws against opposing top lines. That's what happened on Gionta's first goal Sunday, when Larsson won a faceoff in D-zone. The Sabres were quick to breakout with a bank pass off the wall from Gionta to Larsson, who carried the puck into the offensive zone. He fed it deep to Foligno, who maintained possession as he passed by a defender behind the net and swung the puck to Jake McCabe at the point.
Gionta got the tip on McCabe's shot, but Larsson was battling in front of the net to create traffic and potentially screen the goaltender.
The second goal also began in the defensive zone and displayed the line's strength of supporting one another on the forecheck. Foligno plays the role of first man in and races Adam Larsson to retrieve the puck on the end boards. Darnell Nurse is there to pick up the loose puck and looks to execute a breakout pass, but the Sabres' Larsson rushes in to make an interception. Gionta moves into the slot, and the two connect.
Video: BUF@EDM: Gionta tallies from the circle to net second
Even having scored two goals, they could have had more. One of their best shifts came late in the first period, just before the Oilers got on the board. The line of Ryan O'Reilly, Sam Reinhart and Kyle Okposo had carried the puck into the zone with 3:54 remaining in the period and, thanks to the forecheck work of Larsson and Foligno behind the net, the puck stayed there until Gionta had a put-back chance 40 seconds later.
For the Sabres, the best defense is a good offense. They're game plan entering the game was to make McDavid and Co. defend, and it worked.
"I think that was one of our key points," Bylsma said. "Yeah, we want to make it hard on McDavid and we want to take away his space and speed, but we want to make them defend and, as a checking line, that's something they do extremely well."
Gionta said after the game that the pressure of playing against top lines also forces he and his linemates to simplify their own game to avoid making costly mistakes as they carry the puck through the neutral zone.
"Definitely," Foligno said. "You're not trying to do too many risky plays and I think that will frustrate them. I think it did last game. We really just kept it simple, we tried to beat them with our strength and speed and we didn't really cough up much. They thrive on turnovers and we really didn't give them anything."
The home team gets last line change in the NHL, so the fact that Bylsma uses the Larsson line to begin road games as he did Sunday is a testament to his faith in their shutdown abilities. The challenge is no different on Tuesday in Calgary. The Flames have a roster full of young gunners, starting at the top with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.
"We're really looking at a Calgary team that is a lot like the Edmonton team with the skill and the way they play up front," Bylsma said. "That's something we're going to have to be really aware of."
There will be a familiar face starting in goal for the Flames opposite Robin Lehner on Tuesday. Chad Johnson, who won 22 games in 45 appearances for the Sabres when Lehner missed much of the season due to injury, is set to make his second-straight start for his hometown team.
"He was solid, confident, calm and a comforting influence on the rest of our team," Bylsma said of his former goalie. "It felt like when Chad was in the net, we had a chance to win every game that he played and he ends up winning over 20 games and has a great year for us. Don't need to see any of that tomorrow, if we do see him."
Speaking of goalies, Bylsma said that the Sabres' new backup, Anders Nilsson, will make his debut in the "near future."
Dmitry Kulikov was on the ice for both of Edmonton's goals late in the first period on Sunday and admitted it took some time for him to find his footing after missing the end of the preseason due to a lower-body bruise.
At the end of the day, however, he skated 19:11 of ice time, third amongst Sabres defensemen, and was part of a truly balanced defensive effort that kept Edmonton's offensive output to a minimum.
"I would say we have three parings no matter who we play against, what lines or not matter who's gonna play with one another," Kulikov said. I think we're all a very capable group. We can shutdown the top lines and the minutes are divided by pairs equally."
For more on the defensive balance the Sabres were able to strike on Sunday, be sure to watch today's Sabres in :90 with Brian Duff below.
Video: Sabres in :90 (10/17/16)
23 Sam Reinhart - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
82 Marcus Foligno - 22 Johan Larsson - 12 Brian Gionta
63 Tyler Ennis - 27 Derek Grant - 26 Matt Moulson
44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 52 Hudson Fasching /73 Nicholas Baptiste
4 Josh Gorges - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe - 47 Zach Bogosian
77 Dmitry Kulikov - 46 Cody Franson
34 Casey Nelson
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson