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Spot on Sabres' top line is there for the taking

There’s a prime piece of real estate available in Sabreland. It’s on the left side of Buffalo’s last two All-Stars.

“I’d like to see someone grab it,” coach Dan Bylsma said Sunday.

It’ll be up to Tyler Ennis, Matt Moulson or Justin Bailey to do it. All three earned shifts with center Ryan O’Reilly and right wing Kyle Okposo during Saturday’s win over Ottawa. All three could see time there Monday when the Sabres visit New Jersey.

Of course, if someone performs well enough, the others won’t get a chance.

“I’d like one of those guys to grab hold of that spot and not let it go,” Bylsma said in KeyBank Center.

Based on practice, Moulson will again start as the left winger on the O’Reilly line. He got seven shifts in that spot Saturday. Ennis slid onto the line for seven shifts, while Bailey had two with the All-Stars.

“We’re mentally prepared for that,” Moulson said. “That’s how it’s been over the last two years. You want to be out there and contribute, just be ready when you are called.”

The call can create anxious moments. It doesn’t matter if the player is a veteran or rookie. There’s a burst of energy when your name is called for the top line, an instant of deflation when someone else is told to hop over the boards.

“Everybody’s competitive,” Ennis said. “Everybody that plays hockey wants to be on the top line. There’s a good, healthy competition. I think every line’s been contributing, playing well and playing hard.

“You’ve just got to make sure you’re playing well every shift. You can’t take a shift off. That’s the situation that it’s in. You’ve got to go prove yourself every shift.”

Ennis’ scoring ability can earn him shifts in the offensive zone. He has one goal and two assists in his eight games since returning from sports hernia/groin surgery.

Moulson, meanwhile, has the two-way game to earn time in close games or when Buffalo wants to close out a team. He got the majority of his time with O’Reilly during the first and third periods against Ottawa. Moulson has just one goal in the last 10 games and two in the past 22.

“Right now a lot of times it’s situationally based,” Bylsma said.

The wild card is Bailey. The rookie is on his third call-up of the season, and he’s grown each time. He started with center Nicolas Deslauriers and Ennis, but he got the two shifts with O’Reilly and three with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart.

It paid off. Bailey was plus-2. He was on the ice when Okposo opened the scoring and also when Reinhart made it 3-0.

“I just feel like it’s a privilege to play with those guys,” Bailey said. “Those are guys that keep the puck in the offensive zone for the entire shift, so I think anytime you get a shift with them, you want to make the most of it.”

Bailey scored his first NHL goal during his previous recall, which lasted seven games. After being sent to Rochester, he continued to dominate the American Hockey League. He has 11 goals and 14 points in 13 games.

“It was just motivating,” he said of the previous stay. “You get a taste, and anytime you get a taste you want to do your best to stick.

“Going back down there, I just continued to play with speed. The more I played with speed, the more I had chances. I’m starting to figure out down there what it takes to be successful, so I’ve just got to find those things that transfer up to here. Hopefully, I’ll have the same success.”

Bailey has the speed edge over Moulson and a physical advantage over Ennis. In fact, Bylsma says, Bailey has an advantage over a lot of guys. The coach wants him to realize it.

“He needs to recognize the speed that he has is a weapon, and it’s a weapon against pretty much every defenseman he’s going against,” Bylsma said. “When you have the ability to skate like he does, you should be using it every time and every chance you can to exploit pretty much anyone he’s playing against.”

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