NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Dmitry Kulikov feels his back injury is finally behind him. The Sabres will find out.
Kulikov returned to Buffalo’s lineup Tuesday when the Sabres visited Nashville. It was the defenseman’s first game since Dec. 27.
“Hopefully, it’s the last time I had to rehab it,” Kulikov said in Bridgestone Arena. “At this point, it feels better than it ever did at any point of the season.”
Kulikov has missed 26 games in connection to the back injury suffered during the preseason. He skipped the season opener, played in 12 games, sat out the next 13, then played in six straight.
He skated 22:33 against Detroit on Dec. 27, then stayed away from the team until practicing Monday.
“It’s tough,” Kulikov said. “I know 90 percent of the players are playing through injuries throughout the season. It’s just something we do as players. Unless it’s a significant injury where you can’t play, you’re going to push yourself through it and just do everything you can for the team.
“When this happened in the preseason, I didn’t give it much thought as to how bad it was going get. I kept playing until I couldn’t play anymore.”
The increased minutes last month gave the Sabres hope that Kulikov was ready to be a roster mainstay, but he departed again.
“I felt like it wasn’t doing any good for me and it wasn’t doing any good for the team,” Kulikov said. “That’s why I missed time this past couple weeks to take time and get it better to the point where I don’t have to think about it all.
“Getting back in the lineup is something I’ve worked for really hard in the past couple weeks. It wasn’t a fun year for me so far, but I think I worked hard this past couple weeks, did everything I could to get myself back in the lineup. I’m happy where I’m at right now.”
Coach Dan Bylsma is glad to get Kulikov back, but he’s cautiously optimistic that Kulikov's pain is in the past.
“He has played obviously but hasn’t gotten back to feeling 100 percent,” Bylsma said. “Hopefully, we’re getting close to that now with him – but I still think it’s a management situation for Dmitry the rest of the way.”
The Sabres waived Derek Grant to generate roster flexibility, not to send him to Rochester, and it was a surprise to both sides when Nashville claimed him this month.
Grant struggled through 35 games with Buffalo, recording no goals and three assists. So when the team waived him Jan. 10, it appeared he’d head to Rochester and continue what had been an impressive career in the American Hockey League.
He revealed Tuesday that General Manager Tim Murray told him that wasn’t the case.
“He said he wasn’t sending me down,” Grant said. “I came to the rink prepared to go on the road trip if I wasn’t picked up.”
Rather than join Buffalo on its flight to Tampa Bay, Grant headed to Nashville.
“It was just a roster move and a possible opening up of the roster with the move,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “The plan wasn’t necessarily for Derek to go to Rochester with the move. Unfortunately for us but fortunately for Derek, he got picked up by Nashville.”
The Sabres were in the midst of several transactions around the time of the move. Johan Larsson went on injured reserve as Linus Ullmark came up from Rochester to replace ill Robin Lehner. William Carrier was healthy after the flu.
In the following days, Justin Bailey went to the Amerks, Cal O’Reilly came up and Tyler Ennis was activated from IR.
“It kind of came as a bit of a surprise to me,” Grant said. “It’s a long 24 hours when you’re waiting to hear.”
Grant has played six games for the Predators, but he was a healthy scratch against the Sabres.
He is still looking for his first NHL with 81 games played, though he thought he had it Jan. 17 with the Preds in Vancouver. He put the puck past goaltender Ryan Miller, but after officials chatted about the scrum, they determined the “intent to blow the whistle happened prior to the puck going in the net.”
“It’s just the way the game goes sometimes,” Grant said. “You keep going to the net, and eventually one is going to go in. I’ll just keep doing that and wait for one of those bounces.”
It doesn’t sound as if defensemen Jake McCabe and Josh Gorges will be rejoining the Sabres anytime soon. Neither is on the road trip that carries Buffalo into All-Star Weekend.
McCabe missed his second straight game with a shoulder injury.
“Pain has to minimize, decrease and he’s got to get range of motion, then strengthening,” Bylsma said. “I would probably get a little more interested in how he’s doing after the break, and hopefully he’s responding.”
Gorges has missed nine games.
“He’s still dealing with the abdominal injury,” Bylsma said, “doing some active stuff off the ice, not able to get back on the ice for a little bit.”