Ryan O’Reilly’s linemate history is pretty spectacular. He’s skated with future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla, Olympians Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene, All-Star Alex Tanguay and No. 1 overall pick Nathan MacKinnon.
He’s in the middle of Evander Kane and Tyler Ennis now, and the Sabres’ top center says those wingers don’t have to take a back seat to anybody.
“It’s just as good as any line I’ve played on before, absolutely,” O’Reilly said Wednesday.
That statement obviously carries some training-camp hyperbole. After all, Buffalo’s trio has played together in just two intrasquad scrimmages and Wednesday’s 5-2 preseason loss to Ottawa. The players have a long way to go to prove they’re a formidable first line.
That said, the early signs are promising. Kane scored Buffalo’s two goals, while O’Reilly and Ennis combined for three assists. It’s just preseason, but the Sabres like the first taste of life together for their No. 1 unit.
“Chemistry obviously gets built through time, but I’ve had a chance to practice and play a little bit with them throughout the camp,” Kane said in First Niagara Center. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity for success with us three playing together. I think we all bring different attributes to our line.”
The players complement each other nicely. O’Reilly is a puck-possession machine, the type of skater who keeps plays alive in the offensive zone or starts them from his own end. Ennis is a shifty, creative playmaker. Kane is a speedster with a lethal shot and the size to lay someone out if needed. He had a game-high six hits to go with his goals.
“It’s something I enjoy doing, and it’s one of the reasons I enjoy the game so much,” said Kane, who also enjoyed finding the net in his first game of any sort since February. “Anytime you score, it’s nice to get on the board. It gets you feeling good and gets the ball rolling a little bit heading into the season.”
It’s been a few years since the Sabres have had a legitimate top line. Elite players make the difference in the NHL, and Buffalo hopes it has a lineup that can compete at the top of the depth chart.
“They’ve been pretty dynamic in their time on the ice so far together,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “I’ve been real impressed with the way Ryan’s worked in practice. He might be our hardest-, longest-working guy right now in training camp. He’s staying on the ice and kicking coaches off with how he’s staying on the ice. That’s what I’ve been real impressed with about Ryan and that line.”
The Sabres heard great things from afar about O’Reilly’s work ethic. It’s part of the reason they gave up a lot to acquire him and emptied the vault to sign him. They needed to increase the intensity level on the ice and in the dressing room.
“In order to have success, we’re going to have to be real detailed,” O’Reilly said. “It’s not going to be easy to come from where we were last year. We’ve got to work together. We’ve got to find out quickly how to have success together.”
Ennis and O’Reilly learned that giving the puck to Kane is a great way to find success. The left winger pulled Buffalo within 3-1 early in the third period with a short-handed goal. After he corralled a loose puck at the top of the circle in Ottawa’s zone, he ripped a wrister under the glove of goaltender Chris Driedger.
Kane’s second goal, on the power play, came from the top of the other circle. He again sent a laser toward the net, and it cleanly beat Driedger through a screen set by Brian Gionta.
Kane attempted 15 shots and put a team-high six on net as Buffalo outshot the Senators, 42-26. The Corsi was 71-42 in favor of the Sabres. O’Reilly won just 31 percent of his faceoffs, a stat Bylsma said was deflated by poor work as a team during draws. The center won 53.4 percent last season, so the number is sure to rebound. If the line starts with the puck, it has the potential to change games.
The Sabres head up the QEW to face the archrival Toronto Maple Leafs at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Air Canada Centre. It’s the start of back-to-back road games as the Sabres visit the Senators at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“We can build off a lot, still get a lot better,” Ennis said. “You see O’Reilly make those little plays out there, then you see Kaner put two goals in. He just shoots the puck and it goes in. Hopefully, that’s a sign of things to come.”