Johan Larsson bid farewell Sunday to his father, who flew back to Sweden after a week with his son. He picked a good week to visit.
Larsson scored in back-to-back games for just the second time in his career and also skated against rookie phenom Connor McDavid in his new role as the Sabres’ shutdown center.
“He’s been here a couple times now, but it’s always nice to have your family and some friends here,” Larsson said in First Niagara Center. “It’s always nice to score when he’s here, and it’s nice to talk to him after the game.”
There was plenty to talk about. Larsson skated 18 minutes against Minnesota on Saturday, just eight seconds off his season high. He boosted his goal total to five after also scoring Thursday against Calgary. He’ll try to find the net in three straight games Monday when the Sabres visit Toronto.
“It’s just going in for me now,” said Larsson, who has three goals in five games. “I’m confident. I’m trying to work on it every day in practice, trying to hit the net a lot, be in the right spots. I had some good looks, but I’ve been missing the net on those looks. I’m trying to focus on hitting the net and at least try and make the goalie save it.”
This is the second straight year in which Larsson is putting together a late-season rush. He took over as the Sabres’ No. 1 center following the trade deadline last year and finished with five goals and 14 points in 17 games. This year, with Ryan O’Reilly injured, the Sabres are relying on Larsson to be a defensive stalwart.
“I think he’s done a real good job in that spot,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “I think that’s where his role is on the team. Some people label that fourth-line center or checking center or third-line center. I’m not going to get too caught up in that, but I think that’s a very good spot for him to be in and wanting to think he’s showing he can be in.
“The fact that he’s picked up a couple goals here and there lately is just a benefactor of him being in the right spot at the right time. I think he can add in that regard but really be more the role of a checking, defensive, hard-to-play-against guy.”
It’s not an easy role, especially mentally. Larsson is a respectable minus-1 in the seven games without O’Reilly, but players such as Edmonton’s McDavid and Minnesota’s Mikko Koivu are too good to shut down for an entire game. Larsson has had to accept the fact he’ll lose his share of shifts.
“It’s hard,” he said. “They’re going to be in your zone and play. They’re good players. You’ve got to respect that.
“But at the same time you’ve got to play down there and make them play defense. I think that’s the most important thing, get them frustrated with the game and maybe you can score a goal or two.”
While Larsson has shown he can excel late in a season, he needs to prove he do it for a whole year. The 23-year-old will be a restricted free agent after the season, and it’s tough to build a case for a long-term contract when he recorded just one goal and five points in the opening 47 games. Rochester centers Tim Schaller, Jean Dupuy and Eric O’Dell will look to take his spot with the Sabres next season.
Larsson is ready for the competition, which would have been even fiercer with his original team. The Sabres acquired Larsson from the Wild in April 2013, and he saw firsthand Saturday what their depth chart looks like.
“I glad I’m here,” Larsson said. “I have a real good chance here, and we have a real good team now. I’m excited to be here.”