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Buffalo-born Foligno finds his home with the Sabres

Early in Sabres practice, Marcus Foligno’s voice filled the empty arena, and his teammates laughed at the joke. A short time later, Foligno worked extensively with Buffalo coach Dan Bylsma on a one-on-one passing drill that showed how quick his hands have gotten. Before heading to the dressing room, Foligno had Evander Kane tie him up with his stick, and the forward pulled the resisting Kane from the blue line to center ice.

Foligno, a Buffalo native, has finally found a home with the Sabres. He’s done it by consistently showing some of his top traits – humor, skill and strength.

Formerly a raw, inconsistent prospect, Foligno seems to have figured things out as he enters his sixth NHL season. A long stretch of success last year boosted his confidence and has shown the 25-year-old what he needs to do on a nightly basis.

He says a frank talk with Bylsma and the coaching staff last winter set him on the right path.

“I voiced my frustration a little bit,” Foligno said in KeyBank Center. “I remember talking to the coaches about ‘What can I do?’ and things like that. It was good. It was positive criticism, and then from there I never looked back.

“You’ve got to look at the man in the mirror sometimes, and that’s what I did.”

After two goals, seven points and a minus-6 rating in his opening 35 games, Foligno put up eight goals, 16 points and a plus-10 in his final 40. More importantly, he became someone who could be relied on all the time rather than a guy who showed up once in a while.

“In the past, there was some fluctuation in his game, there was some inconsistencies from game to game and week to week,” Bylsma said. “Marcus’ game can’t change and fluctuate. He has to be a hard guy to play against. He has to be a big, physical presence. He’s got to be a guy who plays on the inside.

“Marcus grew into that, and in the last 45 games delivered that on a consistent basis.”

The 6-foot-3, 223-pound left winger finished last year on the Sabres’ checking line with center Johan Larsson and right wing Brian Gionta. Zemgus Girgensons has replaced Larsson at times during training camp, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see last year’s trio lined up against the opponents’ best when the season starts Thursday.

“We found a nice little niche within our team, a nice role that we played,” Gionta said. “We played well off each other. You’ve got Foligno who’s a big body and can skate well and grind some guys down.

“He doesn’t know how good he can be or how strong he is out there. He just started to touch that surface last year, and if he continues to progress and find that confidence in himself and his game, I think you’ll see him take off.”

Foligno burst into Buffalo back at the end of the 2011-12 season. He popped in six goals and 13 points in 13 games, combining with Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford on an astounding run of 21 goals and 49 points in only 13 appearances.

The scoring, however, was short-lived. After putting up five-, seven- and eight-goal seasons, Foligno finally cracked double digits last year with 10. He did it, strangely enough, by focusing on his defensive responsibilities.

“We knew that it was our job to maybe play defense before offense, but defense contributed to offense,” he said. “The way we played last year was a positive for the team, and it was a lot of fun. We had a lot of success in the offensive zone last year as a third line playing against top lines of other teams. That’s what this team needs.”

Teams also need comic relief. Foligno partners with Nicolas Deslauriers to provide it. Foligno’s personality during training camp has been as big as him.

“Sometimes morning skates with all the young guys, everybody’s pretty tense out there,” he said. “It’s good to have hooting and hollering and all that stuff. It keeps things light.

“This is a great job to have, and we’re enjoying it.”

Foligno says the butterflies have arrived with the opener just days away. Montreal visits Thursday, and the Sabres are determined to win. They lost last year’s opener en route to a 2-6 start, and Foligno says the group knows that can’t happen again.

“I’m going to put a lot of emphasis on the way I start this year,” he said. “I think that will kind of reciprocate on how our team starts, too. I really feel like a good start this season will put us in the right direction for the team and for success individually.

“I’ve got to be ready from Game One. I feel really confident that the start of the season will dictate for a good, long year.”

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