Dmitry Kulikov knew his 500th game was coming. He just didn’t think it was Saturday.
“I thought I was 10, 15 away from 500,” Kulikov said. “It was a good surprise and a good 500.”
Forget good. Compared to the rest of the season, it was an incredible, fantastic, extraordinary 500.
After an injury-plagued season that featured just one goal and one assist in 39 games, Kulikov finally got a chance to have fun against Toronto. The defenseman doubled his season output, recording a goal and assist during the 5-2 victory over the Maple Leafs.
It was an impressive return after missing nine games with a concussion.
“I was just trying to take advantage of the opportunity I’ve got in the last eight games,” Kulikov said. “It’s fun to play when things are going your way and when the team is winning. I had a lot of fun.”
With Rasmus Ristolainen serving the first of his three-game suspension, Kulikov joined Jake McCabe as Buffalo’s top defense pair. He skated 23:55, including 2:40 short-handed and 1:09 on the power play. Both of his points came during the man-advantage.
“It was big task,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “Without Risto in the lineup, he was top pairing, playing against their good players. He stepped into the power play, and it was seamless.”
Kulikov’s ability to move the puck from the point altered Bylsma’s power-play plans. The Sabres had practiced with five forwards on the first unit (Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart), but Bylsma opted for Kulikov instead of Kane.
It worked as Buffalo went 2 for 2 to improve to an NHL-best 24.5 percent.
“We had both options we were thinking about using,” Bylsma said. “We practiced the one, obviously, to get comfortable with the five forwards.”
Kulikov will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. After suffering a preseason back injury that lingered for months and the concussion, he has a chance to head into the offseason strong.
“Dmitry’s looked really good coming back from his injury,” Bylsma said. “He’s skating well. The last two days of practice had been his most aggressive, most physical and the way he can play. I thought he stepped right into the game and showed that for us.”
While the Sabres had plenty of reasons to feel good Saturday, the Florida Panthers had even more. They’ll head into Monday’s game in Buffalo fresh off a 7-0 shellacking of the Chicago Blackhawks.
“We talked about this kind of being a big game for us to kind of judge where we are and what we can do,” Florida coach Tom Rowe said.
Still, the Panthers are limping into Buffalo. Jaromir Jagr left the victory with a lower-body injury, while defenseman Aaron Ekblad missed his second straight with a neck ailment.
Neither team will make the playoffs, but both are hoping Saturday’s wins will propel them to a solid finish.
“I certainly believe that and hope that,” Bylsma said Sunday in HarborCenter. “That was a good example of how we can play and how we need to play.”