After a day away from the ice on Monday, the Buffalo Sabres got back into action Tuesday morning with a labor-intensive practice at First Niagara Center.
With the exception of Tyler Ennis and Jamie McGinn, both of whom are expected to return to practice on Wednesday after sitting out for maintenance days, the Sabres players took the ice for a “work day” in the wake of their day off and a stretch in which they played four games in six nights.
What exactly is a work day? In the vernacular of Sabres coach Dan Bylsma, it’s an opportunity to establish a pace and a level of intensity in practice that the grueling schedule of the regular season often doesn’t allow.
With no games on the schedule until Thursday night when Buffalo hosts Tampa Bay, Bylsma seized the opportunity.
“I like them. I think they’re great times to get work done,” the coach said. “So often when you’re playing 4-in-6 or 3-in-5, you don’t have the opportunity to get real work done. You do it through smaller ways and individual ways and we saw that in the practice before going to New York [on Saturday].
But today’s pace and work and battle – yeah, I like it, writing up ‘work day’ for practice. I’m not sure [the players] like reading it.”
They may not like it, but they’ve grown accustomed to it. Back in September, at the outset of their first Training Camp under Bylsma, players spoke about how pleasantly surprised they were by the fast pace of practices. Many of them weren’t used to it, but they recognized how it would benefit their game.
Now, entering the second month of the regular season, those practices are becoming second nature.
“Yeah, for sure,” Sabres captain Brian Gionta said. “That’s exactly where you want to get to. You want it to be your norm, your working norm, so that practice is an easier this time of year.”
Up-tempo play wasn’t the only aspect of practice that required some adjusting. Bylsma stops to teach at several points throughout any given practice and he’s recognized that, on a young team, some players aren’t accustomed to processing such high levels of information.
“I am mindful of that,” he said. “It’s evident; I can see it. I [could] see it from Sept. 18 through the first three weeks of Training Camp; I [could] see it in some players’ eyes. They’re like, ‘I didn’t know doing that or standing there or that detail was hurting me before.’ They weren’t aware of it.
“I know that. But it’s also not the first time I’ve coached someone who’s young or hadn’t seen some of those things before. So I think they’re more than capable and they’re showing it. They’re showing they’re more than capable of digesting it and doing it and then bringing it to their game.”
One such teaching moment at practice on Tuesday came when the team worked on its forecheck from the red line. Bylsma took time to tell his players what he wanted to see, why he wanted to see it and what went wrong in their last game, a 2-1 win against the New York Islanders.
Then, it was off to the races again. One-by-one, the forward lines took turns entering the offensive zone, dumping the puck behind the defensemen at the faceoff circles and skating hard to retrieve it.
“I think that’s the one thing against the Islanders that we kind of got away from, I think is just a good second guy on the forecheck,” Sabres forward Marcus Foligno said after practice.
“The first guy goes in there and does one job and the second guy goes in and supports him, we kind of got away from it against the Islanders and I think that’s one thing that we had to get back to some basics on.”
Maybe so, but the Sabres were still able to come away with their second-straight win and their third in four games. Why? They’re playing smart, exiting their own zone quickly and keeping the puck in opponents’ zones for long periods of time, according to Foligno.
Maybe the fruits of their labor are starting to show.
“I still think we’re in the beginning stages of our development as a team and as a group,” Bylsma said. “But it’s real clear; we’re better in certain areas and it’s real clear what we’re at least trying to do on the ice.”
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 59 Tim Schaller
22 Johan Larsson – 15 Jack Eichel – 82 Marcus Foligno
26 Matt Moulson – 28 Zemgus Girgensons – 12 Brian Gionta
23 Sam Reinhart – 17 David Legwand
Defensemen: 3 Mark Pysyk, 4 Josh Gorges, 6 Mike Weber, 25 Carlo Colaiacovo, 29 Jake McCabe, 46 Cody Franson, 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
31 Chad Johnson
35 Linus Ullmark