PHILADELPHIA – The Sabres traded for Dmitry Kulikov because they knew he’d bust his butt on the blue line. After taking that too literally at first, he’s showing signs of being the defenseman Buffalo expected.
Kulikov, who missed most of the preseason and the season opener after bruising his hindquarters, moved up the lineup Tuesday when the Sabres visited Philadelphia. He skated on the second defense pair with Zach Bogosian and manned the point on the second power-play unit in Wells Fargo Center.
“I feel pretty comfortable and feel good about my game,” said Kulikov, who was pleased with the new pairing. “We’re both pretty big guys that can skate. It doesn’t matter who gets the puck. We both can find our forwards, and both of us can skate the puck out of the zone if we need to.
“We’re big, physical guys that will be hard to play against and hard in front of our net.”
The Sabres have admired Kulikov’s all-around game, which led to the offseason trade that sent Mark Pysyk to Florida. Buffalo had to wait to see its acquisition. He missed the opening of training camp while representing Russia in the World Cup, then got checked into the door to the boards during his opening exhibition.
“Unfortunately in his situation, not only did he get injured in camp, he couldn’t skate in camp with that injury,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s obviously come back. He’s got his feet underneath him, skating pretty well out there. Each game he’s earned more ice time, and frankly we need him to be on the ice more.”
Bylsma has liked the top pair of Rasmus Ristolainen and Josh Gorges but said Kulikov could get shifts with Ristolainen. That was the original plan when the trade was announced, but Bylsma has sought balance through the three pairs.
“You have six guys in the lineup every night that can play against anyone,” Bogosian said. “That’s a good thing for our team. We don’t need one guy playing a crazy amount of minutes. You can get everyone involved right away and go that way, play a fast-paced game and play well defensively.
“The first few games we haven’t created a lot of offense from the back end. That’s something we need to do a better job of.”
The promotion of Kulikov meant the breakup of the established pairing of Bogosian and Jake McCabe. They opened this season together after sharing the blue line for most of last year.
“When you build chemistry with someone, obviously it’s a huge thing,” Bogosian said. “With Dmitry, it’s just trying to make sure we’re doing the little plays, talking to each other. The main thing when you’re a new D pairing is you’ve got to talk a lot and you’re giving each other the head’s up.”
Though Kulikov doesn’t know his fellow defensemen as much as he’d hoped to by now, he’s seen enough to be impressed.
“Every guy can skate with the puck and every guy can join the rush,” he said. “When you have this many equal defensemen, it makes it hard on the opposition first of all to play against you because every pair can play against top lines, every pair can join the rush and contribute on offense. We’ve got big shots and can move the puck, so it’s a real advantage to us that we have such a good group of defensemen.”
The Flyers welcomed back defenseman Radko Gudas, who served a six-game suspension for a hit to the head of Boston’s Austin Czarnik. He had a two-game suspension last season for another head shot on Mika Zibanejad. He escaped discipline for similar hits on the New York Rangers’ Jimmy Vesey and Buffalo’s Dan Catenacci.
A stern-faced Bylsma was not thrilled by Gudas’ return.
“We’ve made note,” he said.
Anders Nilsson made his first start in goal for the Sabres. Linus Ullmark, recalled from Rochester with Robin Lehner too ill to make the trip, served as the backup.
Ullmark has started 3-1 with a .926 save percentage for the Amerks.
“We’ve been playing pretty well,” Ullmark said. “The guys have been helping out a lot. It’s been fun down there. We’ve got a great group of guys battling every day, so I see something positive coming out from this season.”