Lindy Ruff said he believed in the defensive pairing of Jaroslav Spacek and Brian Campbell. Then he proved it.
With Henrik Tallinder out with a shoulder injury Monday night in Washington, Ruff could have elevated Campbell or Spacek to play with Toni Lydman to keep his captain part of the No. 1 pairing. Instead, the Buffalo Sabres coach made Campbell and Spacek the shutdown unit.
It's proof Ruff has confidence in the pair, confidence he didn't have last year. It's easy to see why. Campbell entered the game against the Capitals with a team-high 13 assists, while Spacek led the blue-liners with five goals despite missing eight games with a shoulder injury. They were a combined plus-3.
"They've got confidence, and even bigger than that is I have more confidence in playing them," Ruff said in Verizon Center.
The increased belief is most evident in regards to Spacek. Ruff was limiting the defenseman to single-digit minutes during the playoffs last season. Now Spacek plays the power play, kills penalties and is on the ice during crunch time.
"I don't know if there's a defenseman that has a bigger role than Jaro right now," Ruff said. "That part has changed."
It's what the Sabres expected when they signed the defenseman to a three-year deal last season that, at the time, made him the team's highest-paid player at $3.33 million per year.
"We've been playing a different role than we played last year. Playing more," Spacek said of he and Campbell. "The coaches trust us more in those situations, like killing penalties, four-on-four and even the end of periods. We've been doing good, and that confidence is always building up."
The duo started the game against Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin, drawing the assignment that would normally go to Tallinder and Lydman. Spacek, a nine-year veteran, relished the return to prominence he had on some of his former teams.
"When coach doesn't want to give you that ice time and put you in those crucial situations, it's kind of -- I don't want to say a boring game -- but you always want [to] play where you save the game or score," he said.
Lydman was paired with rookie call-up Andrej Sekera. It was Sekera's 12th game this season.
"You get used to the system now, and the guys," he said. "You know what to expect from them."
Sekera was a team-worst minus-7 following his first stint, but Ruff said the 21-year-old warranted the return.
"He was playing well before he went down," Ruff said. "He's a young guy who's really gaining confidence. I don't like his numbers, but when I look at him from a playing standpoint he's really grown from the first two games to where he is at right now."
The initial diagnosis on Tallinder, who flew back to Buffalo before the team to meet with doctors about his shoulder injury, is he will be out one to two weeks.
Forwards Drew Stafford (shoulder) and Adam Mair (ankle) participated in a hard morning skate Monday and were scratched from the lineup due to their injuries.
"Both are doing a lot better," Ruff said. "Adam's going to do some one-on-ones, which he hasn't done, and Drew is almost ready to play. A couple more days with a shoulder is always good."