Looking back, Mark Mancari knows he wasn't prepared for the NHL the first time around. He was 21 years old and had played only one full season in the AHL when the Buffalo Sabres promoted him from Rochester for three games. Two years later, after a brief NHL stint this year, he's waiting for the door to open again.
"I came up and played [in 2006-07], but I knew I wasn't ready after I left," said Mancari, who was held scoreless in the Portland Pirates' 4-3 shootout loss to Albany in HSBC Arena on Tuesday. "This year, I came up and played seven games and felt I was ready. I felt comfortable up there and felt like I could play at this level. Every player wants their chance. I'm just itching to get it."
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound winger has the size the Sabres are lacking without veteran forwards Thomas Vanek and Paul Gaustad but he was largely ineffective during his stint earlier in the season.
His age and experience could get in his way of another shot. The 23-year-old has played 259 games over the past four seasons with the Americans and Pirates. If he plays three more games with Buffalo this season, Mancari would need to clear waivers if the Sabres wanted to send him back to the AHL. He'd likely be claimed by another team.
It leaves the Sabres with an interesting decision leading toward the trade deadline about Mancari, who will be a restricted free agent after the season. The Sabres are expected to keep him and believe he has the potential to be much more productive than he was earlier this season.
Mancari scored his first NHL goal Nov. 22 against the New York Islanders but eventually had his ice time decrease, and he was on the fourth line when he was shipped back to Portland. The Sabres like his size, and he has come around after a 10-day slump following his demotion. He has 19 goals and 45 points in his first 44 games, on pace for a career year in the AHL.
"It's my No. 1 goal, to be here," he said of Buffalo. "This is where I want to be, and this is my dream. When you're in Portland, you're playing as hard as you can to make it to the next level. Obviously, when you hear of injuries, you don't like your friends getting hurt, but it always opens up an opportunity for someone. Hopefully, I can get up here soon."
The Sabres hope to get defenseman Andrej Sekera back for tonight's home game against Ottawa. He's been out since suffering a high ankle sprain Jan. 14 at Chicago but has practiced at full strength the last two days.
"It felt very good and I think my leg is fine," said Sekera. "You have to use your body and put more pressure on the ankle. If you don't try it, you don't know how you'll feel at 100 percent."
Coach Lindy Ruff, however, is cautiously optimistic. He said Sekera might return tonight but almost certainly will be ready for either Friday's game against San Jose or Sunday's game against Carolina.
"I always get a little worried about ankles coming back," Ruff said Tuesday. "He felt it yesterday and today was better. I know he thinks he can play, and we'll make a decision."
Ruff shifted his lines again in practice Tuesday in the wake of the Vanek injury. Derek Roy, who skated on left wing Monday, was back at center between Clarke MacArthur and Jason Pominville.
The Pirates used the Sabres' dressing room, with Buffalo regulars coming off the ice after practice getting surprised to see their nameplates missing from lockers.
Former Sabre Mike Ryan scored a goal for Albany and is leading his team and tied for fourth in the AHL with 23 goals. He also has a team-high 37 points. Ryan had no points in six games for Carolina this year.
Fans with tickets for tonight's Sabres game are reminded that faceoff will be at 7:35 to accommodate the national broadcasts on TSN in Canada and the NHL Network in the United States. As usual, the game will be shown in Buffalo on MSG.
Ottawa agitator Chris Neil will miss tonight's game with a calf laceration suffered Saturday night when he collided with Teppo Numminen and was cut by the Buffalo defenseman's skate.
e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com