While he has not yet been confirmed to make his return to the lineup for the Buffalo Sabres on Monday, Tyler Ennis certainly practiced like a man on the brink of playing at KeyBank Center on Sunday. Ennis was a full participant on power-play drills, line rushes and 5-on-5 drills playing alongside Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo.
Dan Bylsma said he'll wait until Monday morning to announce whether or not Ennis will play, but if he does, he did confirm it will be alongside O'Reilly and Okposo. The decision to play Ennis alongside O'Reilly and not Jack Eichel, he said, was based off the shared tendency of Eichel and Ennis to be at their most effective with the puck on their stick.
"He needs players to give and go with and he needs players to create room and space for him when he has the puck," the Sabres coach said in reference to Eichel. "Tyler could be a give-and-go guy with Jack, [but] he's also a guy who likes to have the puck on his stick a lot."
Ennis has missed 30 games since undergoing groin surgery on Nov. 10, reparations for an injury that had already been nagging him early in the season. He was limited to just 23 games in 2015-16 due to multiple injuries, including a concussion that ended his season in December.
While Bylsma may not expect Ennis to be at 100 percent immediately after stepping into the lineup, he's looking forward to the return of a presence the Sabres have been lacking for the better part of a season and a half.
"I think he's going to be in a process of working back to full strength over the next three or four weeks," Bylsma said. "He's still gonna be working to that level and that's a big part of his game. His skating, his agility, his acceleration is a big part of what he is as a player and we just hope he can get back in there and work to being that over the next two weeks or so."
Nobody has been more frustrated since the beginning of last season than Ennis himself. He was optimistic after returning from his concussion, a scary situation that he said gave him a greater appreciation for the game, only to have a groin injury limit his effectiveness to the point where surgery was the only option.
Now, as he nears another return, he's emerged again optimistic both about his own possibilities and those for his team in the second half of the season.
"I've just got to be a confident player," Ennis said. "I think I'm at my best when I have the puck and I'm making plays and I'm confident in myself.
" … When I come back I've got to insert myself with a lot of energy and give my team a boost that we need to make the playoffs."
Robin Lehner stayed back from Buffalo's recent two-game road trip with the flu, and thus was forced to watch back-to-back losses against Tampa Bay and Carolina from the comfort of his home. He was feeling better and back at practice on Sunday, and provided a different perspective on what he thought had gone wrong for the Sabres during those two games.
"Playing the games or being on the bench, it's one thing, but when you're sitting on the couch and turning on the TV you kind of get a different perspective on things," Lehner said. "I think controlling momentum is the biggest thing for me sitting watching on the couch. If we score a goal maybe we need to play a little simple, not take any risks for a little bit to kind of calm the game down and it's the same when we get scored on maybe we just chip it in a little bit, three or four shifts and just play real simple … It feels like when we score goals we score in bunches when they start scoring on us, we're scrambling."
The losses to the Lightning and Hurricanes were similar in that once the Sabres allowed their opponent to score, more goals seemed to follow. It was a microcosm of the season in a way; points in the standings have seemed to come in bunches only to be followed by consecutive losses.
The answer, Lehner said, is simply staying consistent in the details of their game.
"It's not an easy answer, but consistency is the answer," he said. "Consistently doing the small things, consistently doing the simple plays, because that opens things up. Like, you can open your game up and you can start playing and being creative, but you do it when they let you. A lot of the good teams in this League play the same way in and out all the time, play a pretty boring game for 75, 80-percent of the game and then the 20 percent, it comes with the process.
" … We've got to try to get to that point. Right now we're forcing a little bit and then we open up and then we're chasing. That's been the picture, not in all the games, but we have a couple of really good games and then we get away from it. Taking one step forward and two steps back, we've got to find an answer."
Dmitry Kulikov, who has missed the last eight games and 22 games total this season due to a nagging lower-back injury, has been skating on his own and progressing, according to Bylsma.
Fellow defenseman Josh Gorges, out for the last four games with a hip injury, has not been skating but expects to meet with doctors in the next day or two to evaluate his progress.
With Ennis as a full participant and Justin Bailey having been sent down to Rochester on Saturday, the Sabres practice with 12 forwards on Sunday. Sam Reinhart moved from center to the wing with Eichel, which meant an untraditional look for the fourth line of William Carrier, Nicolas Deslauriers and Matt Moulson.
That trio skated with Deslauriers, typically a winger, as the centerman. Bylsma said it's possible we see that in a few game situations, with Deslauriers' history as a defenseman equipping him to serve the defensive responsibilities of a centerman, but said to also expect double shifts from the team's three traditional centers many times when the fourth line takes the ice.
Here's how the full lineup looked on Sunday:
63 Tyler Ennis - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
82 Marcus Foligno - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
9 Evander Kane - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 12 Brian Gionta
48 William Carrier - 44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 26 Matt Moulson
29 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
47 Zach Bogosian - 6 Cody Franson
41 Justin Falk - 38 Taylor Fedun
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson