It started with eye contact.
Sam Reinhart caught the eye of Cal O’Reilly. Reinhart spun around, put the puck on his backhand then fired it across the slot. O’Reilly was on the far post alone, poised to put in his first goal as a Buffalo Sabre.
The play put the Sabres on the board midway through the third period before dropping a 2-1 overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers in First Niagara Center.
But at the moment, it felt like a little glimpse of offensive magic.
“We kind of made eye contact early and it shows how smart he is to put himself in that position,” Reinhart said. “Right when I turned, he kind of knew where the puck was going and was able to put himself there.”
“I was coming in late,” O’Reilly said. “Sam made a great pull-up spin move and I just went to the back post and he made a great play.”
It was the first NHL goal for O’Reilly since Dec. 21, 2011 when he was with the Phoenix Coyotes.
“It was a good feeling. Short lived,” O’Reilly said. “Not getting the win here, it doesn’t mean anything but it was nice to contribute a little bit.”
For Reinhart, it was the 11th assist and 29th point of his first professional campaign, one that has him in the top 10 of this season’s NHL rookie scoring class.
The forward who had played center moved back to the right wing playing on the top line with Jack Eichel and Evander Kane. Tuesday morning he said moving between positions didn’t bother him.
“I’ve played both,” center and wing “a number of times enough to be comfortable switching back and forth,” he said.
And then there were the questions about Connor McDavid.
Reinhart and McDavid have been Team Canada teammates multiple times, including rooming together at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Under-18 Tournament in Sochi, Russia.
“I’ve played with him quite a bit,” Reinhart said. “We know each other pretty well.”
So McDavid’s performance against Buffalo, scoring 22 seconds into the game and the overtime game-winner, was disappointing for Reinhart but not necessarily surprising.
“The year he’s had, it was kind of expected on my part,” Reinhart said. “I know the work he puts in and the top talent he is. It wasn’t a surprise but from our standpoint we would have liked to make things a little harder on their top guys.”
Chad Johnson took extra pucks at the end of Tuesday’s morning skate, as is usual for that evening’s backup goaltender. But Johnson, quite frankly, was just happy to be back in a Sabres uniform.
Johnson, scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after this season, had potential to be traded before the NHL deadline Monday. But there wasn’t a great deal for General Manager Tim Murray nor a sense of urgency to move the 29-year old. So in Buffalo he gladly stayed.
“It was a very uneasy day yesterday,” Johnson said. “Didn’t get much sleep the night before with not knowing what was going to happen. It’s always a lot of unknowns. Nice not to be traded. Again there’s always different sides of it. You never know if you end up on a contending team, too. There’s two sides of the emotions I guess but I’m happy to be here. I love the locker room. I love the guys. I was happy to walk back in the room and see everyone here.”
During his post-deadline news conference, Murray mentioned that this edition of the Sabres is a tight-knit group. Johnson agreed.
“Oh yeah, really close group,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if it has to do with how things were last year but I think everyone knew we wanted to be a better team this year. As much as we’re not in the playoffs, we wanted to be better. We had to do it together as a group. For whatever reason everyone has just clicked. From top to bottom, I think everyone has fit together. It’s fun to come to the rink and play games with these guys.”
Johnson has received his fair share of those games in net. He has played 33 games for the Sabres this year, getting plenty of starts in the first few months with Robin Lehner sidelined with a high ankle sprain. He has a 2.45 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage.
“It’s such a good opportunity for me,” Johnson said. “I want to be a starting goalie somewhere so for me to get in as many games as I have so far and get that opportunity to play on a more regular basis, it’s been good for me to get that exposure and to just show what I’m capable of doing not just as a backup goalie but as a starter.
“What happens, happens. It’s been awesome. I know the last part has been tough with Robin being back. He’s played well and they want to give him a lot of games so I kinda get put on the back a little bit but I’m happy with the amount of games I’ve gotten.”
While Johnson was happy to still be in Buffalo, the Sabres were adjusting to post-deadline life without forward Jamie McGinn and defenseman Mike Weber.
McGinn and Weber “were great guys in the room and they’re tough to lose but it’s a business and you’ve got to move on,” Sabres captain Brian Gionta said.
“It’s unfortunate, because you know when you’re not in that race and not in that hunt for the playoffs things are going to happen.
“Some things happen for playoff teams too but it’s the nature of the beast for that period.”
Niagara Falls native Adam Clendening was in the Edmonton lineup. The 23-year-old came to the Oilers from Pittsburgh with David Perron in a Jan. 15 trade with Pittsburgh for Carl Hagelin. In 36 career NHL games, Clendening has one goal and five assists.