Like so many other forwards in the Buffalo Sabres’ organization, Phil Varone’s 2015-16 season has not gone to plan.
He got a great chance to change that Saturday night.
Varone was called up from the Rochester Americans to replace injured forward Zemgus Girgensons, who is day to day with an upper-body injury and did not play in the Sabres’ 4-1 victory over the Washington Capitals at First Niagara Center.
Varone made the most of his opportunity, opening the scoring in the first period by burying a rebound off a point shot from defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. Varone started the play by winning a battle for the puck behind the Washington net and cycling it back to defenseman Zach Bogosian, who sent it across ice to Ristolainen. Varone was in the perfect spot to cash in the rebound.
“A nice bounce for me,” he said. “Just lucky to be there and happy to put it in.”
Varone, 25, played 28 games with the Sabres in 2014-15, at one point serving as the team’s No. 1 center. He led the Amerks with 15 goals and 44 points last season, and this year is again Rochester’s leading goal-scorer with 10.
He’s also a team-worst minus-20, however, as Rochester has been plagued with the same goal-scoring problem that has afflicted the parent club. Varone is one of eight Amerks with more than 260 games of professional experience, which has put the farm club in a a bind. AHL rules prohibit teams from playing more than six such players on a given night. Varone and others have had to deal with being a healthy scratch.
“It’s definitely different, my first time going around being a vet,” he said. “It’s tough for all of us. It’s tough for Matt Ellis, Patrick Kaleta, Jason Akeson, all of us.
“But that’s the cards we were dealt and we have to deal with it. We’re professionals. It’s tough at times. You want to play every day but there’s quality guys sitting out. As much as it is unfair at times, you have to take it with a grain of salt, come to the rink every day and work hard.”
Varone is playing on a one-year contract and may not have many opportunities left to show the Sabres he should be a part of their long-term plans.
“I think I proved to myself last year the first 10 games here that I can make things happen,” he said. “I think I kind of hit a rut towards the end of the season when I was here. I think I can make plays and I’m just going to play a 200-foot game, try to make things happen with the puck, create havoc out there and bring some energy.”
Varone scored two goals in just his second career NHL game a little more than a year ago, but found the net just once more the rest of the season, finishing with three goals and five points in his first stint with the Sabres – including just one assist over his final 17 games.
“It’s picking your spots, understanding the time of game, how long you’ve been on the ice, situations you’re up against,” Varone said. “I think over the years it’s something I’ve really learned. There have been times I’ve tried to do too much and make it happen all at once and that’s a direct reflection of being hard on myself. Sometimes you’ve got to be patient.”
Prior to the game, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said he wanted to see Varone play more than just a checking role.
“I’d like to see him use his skill and ability with the puck,” Bylsma said. “Hope to give him some opportunity to do that.”
The coach did just that by putting Varone on a line with rookie center Jack Eichel and winger Jamie McGinn.
Girgensons will not make the Sabres’ upcoming two-game road trip to Arizona and Colorado, so Varone will have at least a couple more chances to impress.
Defenseman Mark Pysyk returned to the Sabres’ lineup after missing 26 games because of a broken foot. He took 21 shifts, playing 15:16, all at even strength. He was called for two penalties.
“I felt pretty good,” Pysyk said before the game. “I was getting better as each game went on. Unfortunately I had the injury and a little bit of a setback. Hopefully I can pick up from where I left off. I try to play simple and keep the puck out of our net.”
Pysyk returned to the Sabres on Monday, but was a healthy scratch for games against Minnesota and Boston. Bylsma elected to keep the same lineup together against the Wild that had broken a five-game losing streak, and a victory against Minnesota meant Pysyk sat again Friday.
“Obviously you want to be in the lineup but the boys are winning, everybody was playing well and it’s not easy to get back in,” he said. “That’s just the way things go. You’re not going to be in the lineup if you’re injured and something happens.”
Pysyk ended up taking the place of Josh Gorges. Gorges suffered an upper-body injury Friday against the Bruins and is day to day.
Sabres forward Marcus Foligno dropped the gloves in the third period with Capitals agitator Tom Wilson. The scrap was a direct result of Wilson going after Sabres rookie Sam Reinhart at the end of the second period.
“He’s a young kid. He gets bullied over by Wilson, who’s a tough competitor,” Foligno said. “You need an answer. You need someone to step up.”
The fight fired up the crowd, and the Sabres.
“When you’re having a game like we did, it’s 4-0, they get a goal, you don’t want things to slide away,” Foligno said. “I think it was right to answer in that moment. It settled our bench down, got the guys back into it and we were able to close it out.”
Capitals center Mike Richards made his debut with Washington 10 days after being signed and just eight days after his first practice with the team.
Richards hasn’t played in the NHL since April with the Los Angeles Kings. He had his contract terminated by the Kings last June after being pulled over at a border crossing between the U.S. and Canada and being found to be in possession of controlled substances. The case is still pending.
The NHLPA filed a grievance on Richards’ behalf after his contract was terminated and a settlement made Richards a free agent. The Capitals signed him to a one-year, prorated $1 million.