Another game, another injury, another time the Sabres defensive corps was reduced to a five-man unit.
When last the Sabres were in Key Bank Center, it was Jake McCabe who played just 56 seconds before leaving the game against the Detroit Red Wings with a shoulder injury.
Thursday it was Zach Bogosian who played 5 minutes and 33 seconds in the first period before a mid-body injury took him out of the game, a 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Rangers.
There was no post-game update on Bogosian and head coach Dan Bylsma did not know if a hit on Bogosian by Rangers’ forward Jimmy Vesey was the cause of the injury. But he was pretty pleased with the way his five healthy defensemen – Dmitry Kulikov, Rasmus Ristolainen, Cody Franson, Justin Falk and Taylor Fedun – finished the game.
“We made it tough on them in the second period a little bit with staying on the ice a little bit too long, having to play against their good forwards, their speed forwards," Bylsma said. "But they were up to the task. And it’s guys getting tossed into playing on the off side, switching up the pairs a little bit. … They did a pretty admirable job against a good Ranger team.”
With five defensemen, and overtime, the minutes went up for everyone on the blue line. Ristolainen logged the most, at 32:47, while Kulikov was next with 27:04.
While the big minutes are what Kulikov craves, they also can take a toll on the defenseman who has struggled with a back injury this season.
“It’s worse in the mornings, I suppose like it is for old people,” the 26-year-old said Thursday morning. “You get out of bed, you’re kind of stiff. So it’s just a little stiffer for me when I get out of bed nowadays and in the mornings I need to make sure I do stuff to have myself ready for the game.”
But in order to be ready for the game, Kulikov has needed to take a different approach. Bylsma said in Montreal on Tuesday that Kulikov would probably not take many, if any, morning skates the rest of the season.
True to form, Thursday he was not on the ice as the Sabres warmed up in the morning.
That doesn’t mean Kulikov is taking mornings off.
He’s receiving medical treatment and “doing some core work and activation,” Kulikov said. “We’ve developed a plan to try to keep me strong and if I have any soreness to try and take care of it in the morning instead of going out, getting warmed up, cool down then warm up again for the game. So it’s kind of more a maintenance/prevention type thing. I’m not completely taking the morning skate off. I’m not resting.”
Kulikov has done enough resting this season to last him for many seasons.
It all started in the preseason when he was checked into the door of the Sabres bench. The door opened and caught him in the back. He missed the season opener then played in the next 12 games. The injury started to bother him so he sat out the next 13, including going on injured reserve. He returned to the lineup Dec. 9 to play in six straight before again sitting out with back problems for 12 more games.
He returned Jan. 24 with Thursday’s game his fourth straight.
Determined to make this return stick, Kulikov and the Sabres’ medical staff have worked on his plan, which includes finding exercises and treatment combinations in the morning that prepare him physically to play more than 20 minutes a night with Rasmus Ristolainen as the Sabres top defensive pairing.
“The way we started the rehab is we had a list of things we had to try and we started eliminating a bunch of those things, narrowed it down to what works and what makes me feel better,” Kulikov said. “Right now I’m just continuing doing those things that make me feel better and doing all the exercises in the morning and every day pretty much for the rest of the season.”
When Franson scored for the Sabres late in the third period, he had quite an emotional reaction – a big yell, a big smile and both arms raised to the rafters.
“You know there’s a little something to that one for me,” Franson said. “I had a family issue over the break and it felt good to get that. Unfortunate we didn’t get the win we were looking for but nice to be able to contribute.”
That reaction tho. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/lzLeWvPfmG
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) February 3, 2017
Franson now has six points (two goals, four assists) in his last six games. It was his third goal of the season.
Cal O’Reilly was announced as a healthy scratch by Bylsma Thursday morning and then was placed on waivers. Other NHL teams have until noon on Friday to claim him. If not, he will be eligible to be assigned to Rochester.
The fourth-line forward has played the last seven games with the Sabres, his second stint with the big club this season. In 11 games he has one assist and is a minus-six.