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Checking line brings offense to Sabres

CALGARY, Alberta -- The Buffalo Sabres have a checking line that can frustrate opponents. And when the line can score goals of its own, that becomes quite a weapon.

Center Johan Larsson and wingers Brian Gionta and Marcus Foligno did just that Sunday in Edmonton, getting a pair of goals from Gionta while confounding Connor McDavid and Co. in a 6-2 Buffalo victory. They'll get another chance tonight in the Saddledome when the Sabres play a Calgary team led by young guns Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.

The trio was a consistent unit the second half of last season and was reunited in the third period of Thursday's season opener by coach Dan Bylsma, who had said over the summer he was starting the season with them together but moved away from that during training camp. The way the line played Sunday, it's hard to imagine Bylsma ditching the unit any time soon.

Gionta had his first two goals of the season while Foligno and Larsson both had an assist. The three players were plus-4 in the game and combined with the line centered by Ryan O'Reilly to hold McDavid to one shot on goal in the game.

"There's chemistry there and there's no denying that," Gionta said after practice here Tuesday afternoon. "But what's best about our line is we keep our role in perspective. We know what we're there to do first and foremost. Most of the time, that's be a shutdown line and be a secondary scoring threat at times."

"I like our plays," Foligno said. "We're making them and not panicking. 'Gio' is experienced on the wing. Larsson is a very hard-working centerman and my role is to be tough on the walls. When we're a shutdown line, we take pride in doing that job."

When the line was put back together against Montreal, Bylsma said his new assistant coaches immediately noticed the chemistry it had. The players felt it too.

"We had a good first shift there against Montreal and it's nice to get back together with the guys," Larsson said. "You want to spend as much time as you can in the offensive zone. When you're playing against the best line, you want to make them defend, so the mentality is to be down there but still be responsible defensively."

"It felt normal, felt comfortable again," Foligno said. "We were in the offensive zone and we know how to read off each other. We had really good chemistry."

Both goals scored by Gionta Sunday actually started with the Sabres gaining control after a defensive zone faceoff. It's a great example of putting a scoring line on its heels and making it defend.

"We're there to get it out of our own end first and it ends up in the back of their neck from 'Moose' going hard on the forecheck," Gionta said, referring to the 6-foot-3 Foligno. He's holding the puck down low, being a big body there."

"Me and Lars are tenacious and Foligno is the heavy body on the line. He's being hard on their 'D', heavy on the forecheck, guys looking out for him, stuff like that."

The Larsson line scored its goals against Edmonton's second unit centered by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. But it had plenty of shifts in the second half of the game against McDavid, who was nearly invisible after collecting six points in Edmonton's first two contests.

"We wanted to make it hard on McDavid, take away his space and speed," said Bylsma. "But we wanted to make them defend. As a checking line, that's something they do extremely well is making the other team defend them."

It will be more of the same Tuesday against Gaudreau, who has just one assist and a minus-4 rating in his first three games. The Flames are 0-2-1 while waiting for their 30-goal man to heat up after he signed a six-year, $40.5 million contract two days before the season opener.

"You want to play offense and have them be frustrated," Larsson said. "It's tough to play down there, especially for those guys. They want to be offensive guys. If you can put more time down there and make them defend, it will be best for us."

 

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