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by Chris Ryndak / Buffalo Sabres

With 18 games remaining in the season, some players are essentially in an open audition with the Buffalo Sabres. Players like Philip Varone and Johan Larsson have been waiting for their chance to play big minutes on the team and now they’ve been given that opportunity.

Varone centered the top line with Matt Moulson and Tyler Ennis on Tuesday in Tampa while Larsson was in the middle on the second line between Marcus Foligno and captain Brian Gionta.

Both players have played important roles for the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League over the past two seasons, but their ice time in Buffalo had been limited because the lineup featured more veterans than it does now, post-NHL Trade Deadline.

“For young guys who really believe that they can play in the National Hockey League, they’re really going to have an opportunity to prove that they can,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said after the team’s practice at HARBORCENTER on Wednesday.

“Phil, he had close to 18 minutes last night so he’s going to have every opportunity to do that and sometimes it’s easier said than done. ‘I think I can’ versus doing it. I was impressed with their efforts last night and as time gets going, they’ll get better.”

Varone’s line generated a few scoring chances, especially in the first period when the team had a lot of jump against the Lightning. He joked on Wednesday that when we first saw the line combinations, he had to look twice before finally seeing his number on the No. 1 line.

On the plane ride home, he sat with Ennis and they reviewed the game again.

“Obviously I’m getting the opportunity to play with great players. It’s on me to make the most of it,” Varone said. “I’m obviously putting a lot of pressure on myself. No one expects more out of myself than me so I’m going to go out there and show I can play in this League. Last night, I thought I did an OK job, but I know I have more.”

There is also a new goaltending competition between Anders Lindback, whom the team acquired from Dallas on Feb. 11, and Chad Johnson, who came over in a trade with the New York Islanders on Monday.

Lindback got the start against Tampa Bay, stopping 32 of 35 shots in the 3-0 loss. It was his first game action since Feb. 7.

“I thought Lindback, for not playing for a while and getting put into [a game against] one of the high-scoring teams in the National Hockey League, I thought he did well,” Nolan said. “One goal, we give it away and then the other two are on the power play.”

However, when the team travels to Ottawa for their game against the Senators on Friday, it will be Johnson between the pipes. Nolan hopes Johnson takes this new challenge in stride and runs with it.

“Everybody’s disappointed from going from a top-place team, a contending team, to one that’s not going to make the playoffs. I know it’s tough and it’s mentally tough, but he’s got to look at it as an opportunity himself to grab a hold of a No. 1 job here going the rest of the way,” Nolan said. “You never know what’s going to happen down the road.”

Puck drop between the Sabres and Senators is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. with the Tops Game Night pregame show beginning at 7 p.m. on MSG-B and Bell. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550.

The Sabres returned Mikhail Grigorenko to Rochester before practice. He was called up with Tim Schaller and Jerry D’Amigo on Tuesday. Schaller and D’Amigo dressed, but Grigorenko served as a healthy scratch. The Amerks play in Utica on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

26 Matt Moulson – 84 Philip Varone – 63 Tyler Ennis
82 Marcus Foligno – 22 Johan Larsson – 12 Brian Gionta
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 59 Tim Schaller – 19 Cody Hodgson
49 Jerry D’Amigo – 37 Matt Ellis – 20 Zac Dalpe

61 Andre Benoit – 47 Zach Bogosian
51 Nikita Zadorov – 41 Andrej Meszaros
6 Mike Weber – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
24 Tyson Strachan

33 Chad Johnson
35 Anders Lindback

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