The Buffalo Sabres feel like they can take some chances when it comes to the personnel in their lineup and the line combinations at Monday’s practice reflected that.
Tyler Ennis was on the right wing with center Zemgus Girgensons and Matt Moulson at First Niagara Center. Torrey Mitchell was back in the middle between Brian Flynn on the left and Brian Gionta on the right. Cody McCormick was reunited with left wing Marcus Foligno and right wing Chris Stewart.
But perhaps the most noteworthy change was Drew Stafford practicing at center. He was with left wing Nicolas Deslauriers and a rotation of Cody Hodgson and Patrick Kaleta on the right side.
Stafford has been on the on the wing for his entire eight-year career with the Sabres. Coach Ted Nolan said Stafford came to them with the idea and they discussed the possibility of moving to the middle.
The 29-year-old forward is eager to move back to a position he hasn’t played much since high school in order to help the team.
“It’s been a while, but I like studying the game and learn new things,” Stafford said. “Over the years, it’s maybe been close to happening but with the lineups we’ve had, it’s just never come to fruition until now. We’re trying anything at this point, so we’ll give it a shot and see how it goes.”
Stafford, at 6-foot-2, 214 pounds, has taken his share of faceoffs already this year, going 30-for-68 (44.1 percent) so far. He’s comfortable with that aspect of his new role and will focus on the team’s defensive zone play.
“It’s more our D-zone that we have to clean up a little bit, he said. “I’m going to try to lean on my size and strength down low to help get the puck out.”
THE NEW NO. 1
Ennis has moved back and forth between wing and center in his career, but had only played center so far this year. When Matt Moulson first joined the team last season, it wasn’t long before he and Ennis were wings on a line together.
With Girgensons in the middle, Ennis knows the pressure is on to score goals or else they’ll find themselves with new linemates soon.
“When it’s going this way, there needs to be changes to the lines,” Ennis said. “We’re not putting the puck in the net so it was a matter of time that the lines were going to get switched around. I’m excited to play with Matty and Z. They’re both very hard-working guys with a lot of skill and they’re fun to play with. We’ve got to put the puck in the net and we’ve got a big challenge in St. Louis.”
Nolan is intrigued by that line combination and, like the players, sees that they’re at the point where they have to try new things in order to spark some offense.
“We are at that point. When you run into obstacles, you don’t stop and quit. You’ve got to find a way to get over it or around it or through it,” he said. “We’ll try different things. We’ve got to get Matty Moulson going. With Girgensons and Tyler, we feel that can be our legitimate No. 1 line and we can go from there.”
PAIR OF FIRSTS
On defense, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov were paired together once again. They skated together in Buffalo’s game against Pittsburgh on Saturday and Nolan liked what he saw. He said the two will remain together for Buffalo’s game in St. Louis on Tuesday.
The defensemen were both drafted by Buffalo in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft. Ristolainen was taken eighth overall and Zadorov was selected with the 16th overall pick.
STARTERS AND INJURY UPDATES
Nolan said Michal Neuvirth will start in goal against the Blues.
Foligno was a back at practice after injuring his shoulder in a game on Nov. 1. He’d taken a few skates, but was a full participant on Monday. He’s a possibility to play against St. Louis as is Patrick Kaleta, who’s been out since Sept. 28 when he took a slap shot to the face during the preseason and needed surgery to repair the damage.
Nolan wasn’t able to say after practice for sure if either or both would be ready to go.
“We’re going to see. That was [Foligno’s] first full practice there today. Kaleta, I believe, has the green light also,” Nolan said. “They’ll both be a little bit rusty, missing some time so we’ll see who the best of the best is feeling health-wise and we’ll go from there.”
Buffalo sent forward Johan Larsson, who was up on an emergency recall, back to the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League on Sunday.
The game on Tuesday is scheduled for 8 p.m. EST and can be seen on NBCSN. Dan Dunleavy and Rob Ray's call of the game can be heard live on WGR 550.
26 Matt Moulson – 28 Zemgus Girgensons – 63 Tyler Ennis
65 Brian Flynn – 17 Torrey Mitchell – 12 Brian Gionta
82 Marcus Foligno – 8 Cody McCormick – 80 Chris Stewart
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 21 Drew Stafford – 19 Cody Hodgson – 36 Patrick Kaleta
4 Josh Gorges – 57 Tyler Myers
51 Nikita Zadorov – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
6 Mike Weber – 24 Tyson Strachan
61 Andre Benoit – 41 Andrej Meszaros
34 Michal Neuvirth
1 Jhonas Enroth
31 Matt Hackett