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."
Newly acquired defenseman Marco Scandella sat out practice for the second time during training camp on Wednesday but the message from Housley was clear: There's no concern about the Sabres' prime offseason acquisition, who scrimmaged fully on Tuesday.
"Just another maintenance day. He had a really good day yesterday and we're just being cautious like I said before," Housley said. "I really like the progression he's making. Instead of trying to push the envelope, he has a tough practice, a high-paced practice yesterday. It felt good but let's just take it slow."
Housley said Scandella, on the road back from offseason hip surgery, will likely be at practice on Thursday but probably won't play in either exhibition game this weekend against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He has not played in either of the Sabres' first two games and it's clear the team is simply targeting Scandella to be available for the season opener, Oct. 5 against Montreal.
"Each day is a new evaluation to see where he's at," Housley said. "Hopefully next week he'll get back in. No promises but we don't want to put any pressure on anybody. We just want to make sure he's ready for Oct. 5."
Scandella's daily status could impact the Sabres' decisions on their crowded blueline, perhaps pushing them toward keeping eight defensemen to start the regular season.
"There's going to be a lot of tough decisions," Housley said. "There's a lot of good 'D,' some guys who have really risen up. It's going to be tough but I like to have that difficult decision because we're going to need to have depth on defense. There's a lot of guys who are really looking good and hopefully they can continue to do that."
East Aurora native Austin Osmanski was one of four players returned to their junior teams by the Sabres. Osmanski, a 6-foot-4 defenseman, will be returning for his third season with the Mississaugua Steelheads of the Ontario Hockey League.
Also returned to junior were forwards Vasily Glotov (Shawinigan-Quebec League) and Brandon Hagel (Red Deer-Western League) and defenseman Vojtech Budik (Prince Albert-Western League).
The Sabres have 47 players remaining in camp (26 forwards, 15 defensemen and six goalies). They should make major moves with the roster in the next few days as teams' junior seasons begin this weekend and the Rochester Amerks' training camp opens Monday in Blue Cross Arena.
The Amerks will play exhibition games with the Toronto Marlies on Sept. 29 at RIT and Sept. 30 in HarborCenter. Tickets for that 7 p.m. game are $10 and available at Tickets.com or the KeyBank Center box office.
KeyBank Center will be the home of USA Hockey's sixth annual All-America Prospects Game Thursday night at 7 p.m. Hockey Hall of Famers Chris Chelios and Brian Leetch will be the head coaches for the game, which showcases 42 top American prospects. Tickets are $10 for general admission.
Former Sabres coach Dan Bylsma was hired by NHL Network as a studio analyst. Bylsma worked for the network during last spring's Stanley Cup playoffs and was a game analyst during the 2015 World Junior Championships, calling the Canada-USA game featuring Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid.