Chris Stewart was on the ice Tuesday night, making his First Niagara Center debut for the Buffalo Sabres in a 4-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings. There was a time the team figured that wouldn’t happen until October.
Acquired from St. Louis in the trade for Ryan Miller and Steve Ott, Stewart was ruled out for the season after suffering an ankle injury March 6 in Tampa Bay. In just his second game as a Sabre, he was bull-rushed by Lightning goalie Anders Lindback while trying to corral a loose puck for a breakaway inside the Tampa Bay line.
The Sabres are obviously going nowhere and it would have been easy for Stewart to simply shut it down for the summer and be ready for training camp in September. But to his credit, he pushed hard when he felt that he was turning a corner a couple of weeks ago and decided he wanted a couple more chances to show off his wares.
“The training staff did an amazing job. It was all them,” said Stewart, 26. “They were really hands-on and I liked the way they handled it.
“For me personally, it’s a pride thing. I wasn’t really willing to accept my season being down in the beginning of March, considering we know it’s going to be a long offseason and probably the longest one I’ve had the last 4-5 years. It was a pride thing to come back and help your teammates.”
The 6-foot-2, 231-pound Stewart was immediately thrust to right wing on Buffalo’s top line Tuesday, with Tyler Ennis at center and Marcus Foligno at left wing. Coach Ted Nolan said before he game he was thrilled to see Stewart again but was wary bout how rusty Stewart would be.
His words were prophetic. With Stewart playing for the first time in 15 games and Foligno returning after missing most of the last three, the line was mostly pedestrian.
Its best chance came in the second period on a crisp three-way passing play. Foligno fed Stewart and Stewart feathered a pass to Ennis, who got in alone but couldn’t deke the puck around Jimmy Howard for what could have been a 2-0 lead.
The missed chance proved costly as the line got caught up ice and the Red Wings tied the game a few seconds later. Johan Franzen’s beautiful feed set up defenseman Brendan Smith to make it 1-1 at 12:28.
Stewart also had a good opportunity a few minutes later when the Sabres had a two-man advantage for 1:51 but fired high and wide from the right of the net. Stewart, who had no shots on goal, and Ennis finished minus-2 and Foligno was minus-1.
“You could tell Stewart hasn’t played for a while, you could tell Marcus hasn’t played for a while,” Nolan said afterward. “There’s two big bodies that tried to play a finesse game. They can’t play that way. They have to play a physical game and bump some bodies. Between two of them, we got three hits.”
Detroit won the game and moved one point away from clinching a playoff spot with a three-goal third period. Darren Helm put home a rebound past Matt Hackett at 3:33 of the third to snap the 1-1 tie.
Zemgus Girgensons had both Buffalo goals, a neat tip-in of a Cody Hodgson pass at 1:31 of the second period and a breakaway at 17:49 of the third.
Nolan has openly talked about Stewart being a building block for next year on several occasions, and Stewart has been heartened to hear that kind of chatter.
“Any time the coach vocalizes that he believes in you, that’s obviously a big confidence boost,” Stewart said. “I’m excited.”
Stewart had career highs of 28 goals and 64 points for Colorado in 2009-10 and had 28 goals the next season between Colorado and St. Louis. He averaged 16 goals over the last three seasons for the Blues but also spent time in coach Ken Hitchcock’s doghouse, in part because of uneven performances like Tuesday.
By his own admission, Stewart struggled in his Buffalo debut March 3 at Dallas. He was dogged by thoughts the Sabres might be dealing him two days later. That didn’t happen and he refocused for the game in Tampa, playing a strong two-way game and creating several scoring chances.
“In a bit of a nutshell that’s what I bring to the table,” Stewart said. “I have the ability to make plays and be physical, open up some space for my linemates. Foligno is a player just like me who can go up and down those wings and chip in offensively and really play that big man game.”
Stewart is signed for next year at a more-than-reasonable cap hit of $4.15 million. If he produces, the Sabres could ponder going forward with him. And if they don’t, Stewart could be a pretty decent bargaining chip at the trade deadline next March.
So for both of those reasons, Stewart is plenty motivated that he again push the range of 25-30 goals. “For sure, there’s no reason not to think that,” Stewart said. “I’ve done that a few times in my career. I hold myself to high expectations and those are definitely within my goals.”