Nearly nine months later, Johan Larsson was finally able to play in a hockey game Tuesday night. It might have been your run-of-the-mill preseason game to most everybody else on the Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins, but it certainly wasn't that way for Larsson.
The 25-year-old Swede's season ended with a thud last year on New Year's Eve, when he crashed into the boards during a matinee in Boston and suffered a dislocated wrist and elbow. The gruesome injury required surgery and a long rehab, as Larsson missed the season's final 46 games.
"It was really nice to finally get out there and get in a game situation," Larsson said Wednesday at HarborCenter in the wake of the Sabres' 4-3 overtime win over the Penguins in Penn State's Pegula Ice Arena. "It's been a long time and it was a great feeling. I was trying to get back into the pace, find the timing, find the areas where I was supposed to be on the ice and what kind of game it was."
Larsson had six goals and five assists last year after collecting 10 goals and seven assists over 74 games in 2015-16. He spent most of the last two seasons centering a checking line between Brian Gionta and Marcus Foligno, both of whom are no longer on the roster. In Tuesday's game and again at practice Wednesday, he centered Matt Moulson and Hudson Fasching.
"There's going to be a little adjustment," Larsson said. "Marcus, 'Gio' and I played a lot the last two years but you have to adjust. It is what it is. You have new players, new linemates. You try to see what kind of players you're with. You're at camp and there will be new players everywhere. From now it's just me finding my own game, feeling the timing and feeling the puck."
Despite the injury, the Sabres clearly committed to Larsson by protecting him in the expansion draft and then signing him to a two-year, $2.95 million contract over the summer.
"He's an intriguing player because he's feisty but he's also smart," said coach Phil Housley. "He's getting used to our systems coming back. He's made steps every day and I really liked what he brought to the game. He's in a reliable position for the puck all the time and he understands the game."
Housley also said the Sabres are bringing Larsson around slowly in the wake of his injury.
"That's a long time to be away from playing and we understand that," Housley said. "It's going to take him a little bit longer than most guys and we're going to allow him to have that freedom to come back in."
"The first month after the injury was really tough," Larsson said. "But you have to make a decision and hope it heals well, which it did. It was tough mentally to watch everyone playing when you're just walking around doing nothing. It healed up good, I had a good rehab so I'm really happy to be back."