At forward, the Buffalo Sabres are close to full strength.
Drew Stafford is set to return to the lineup when the Sabres take on the New York Rangers on Thursday at Madison Square Garden at 7 p.m. He’s missed the past four games due to injury, but practiced with the team at First Niagara Center on Wednesday and said he feels like he’s ready to go.
He skated on a like with Tyler Ennis and Chris Stewart with Cory Conacher rotating in and out of line rushes.
Stafford has battled injuries in the second half of the season, but when he’s been on the ice, he’s been productive.
Stafford has averaged 20:04 of ice time and posted 20 points (11+9) in 26 games since the season’s halfway mark. In the 41 games prior to the midway point, Stafford had 13 points (4+9) in and averaged 17:36 per game.
He’s hoping to finish the last three games of the season off strong.
“It’s been like that for a while. With us being out of the playoffs, we’re playing for pride, playing to just get a little bit of respect and hopefully finish the year strong,” he said. “Have a healthy, productive summer and just get ready for next year. It all starts with just trying to have a good finish.”
Chris Stewart, Torrey Mitchell and Marcus Foligno each returned from injury Tuesday night against Detroit. Zenon Konopka is also healthy.
Since they’re back, the team sent Nicolas Deslauriers and Johan Larsson back to the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League.
On defense, the Sabres are without Tyler Myers, Alexander Sulzer and Chad Ruhwedel. Henrik Tallinder has also missed the past four games, but hopes to play on Thursday as well. He and Sabres coach Ted Nolan have deemed him a gametime decision.
“You can still feel it a little bit, but it’s not pain so that’s good,” Tallinder said. “…If it’s going to be worse tomorrow then I’m not going to play, but we’ll see how it feels tomorrow.”
Once Tallinder is ready, the team will send Mark Pysyk back to the Amerks. Nolan said they haven’t decided if Rasmus Ristolainen will play out the season in Buffalo because it depends on the number of healthy bodies they have available.
Nolan also said that with only three games remaining and with Myers not practicing with the team, that it’s likely the defenseman’s season is over. Myers got hurt on March 25 when he crashed into the goal post after getting tripped up on an offensive rush.
The team would rather see him condition in the offseason than rehab.
“We’re going on the road for two games and we come back for one and he hasn’t stepped on the ice for a week so, I’m a betting man, he’s not going to see any more game action until next season,” Nolan said.
In goal, Nolan plans to start Matt Hackett the rest of the way out.
Andrey Makarov has been recalled to back him up, but he’ll return to the Amerks to play Friday night. The Amerks play games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday this week as they try to clinch a playoff berth.
Makarov has been solid for the Amerks since he was called up from the ECHL on March 17. In six games with Rochester, he’s posted a 3-3-0 record and registered a 2.70 goals-against average and .912 save percentage.
“I’ll just enjoy my moment right now and be on the bench and help my teammates and just support my teammates,” Makarov said. “I think it’s a great feeling.”
The Sabres will have to find another back-up goaltender for their games on Saturday and Sunday once they send Makarov back to Rochester.
80 Chris Stewart – 63 Tyler Ennis – 21 Drew Stafford – 88 Cory Conacher
19 Cody Hodgson – 28 Zemgus Girgensons – 17 Torrey Mitchell
82 Marcus Foligno – 65 Brian Flynn – 27 Matt D’Agostini
37 Matt Ellis - 24 Zenon Konopka – 23 Ville Leino
10 Christian Ehrhoff – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
6 Mike Weber – 4 Jamie McBain
29 Jake McCabe – 3 Mark Pysyk
31 Matt Hackett
35 Andrey Makarov