The first moment Tyler Ennis truly felt like he was in the NHL happened against Tampa Bay last weekend, when the rookie had a brush with greatness while rubbing shoulders with Martin St. Louis during a faceoff. The Lightning winger was the player Ennis admired most when he was a kid.
Wait, he still is a kid.
Ennis is 20 years old but looks 16 and plays like he's 26. He made his debut in November after rushing to Philadelphia and scoring a goal against the Flyers, but he was back on a plane bound for the AHL in nothing flat. Tuesday marked his fourth straight day with the Buffalo Sabres, and today will mark his fourth NHL game.
"He does look young. He looks like he should be on a bantam team," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said with a laugh Tuesday after a 30-minute workout in HSBC Arena. "But it's incredible how good some of these kids are."
The Sabres, who play at home tonight against the Florida Panthers, are inching toward the Northeast Division title. They had a five-point lead over Ottawa with seven games remaining and two contests in hand. The Senators beat the Capitals, 5-4 in overtime, on Tuesday night. Buffalo visits Toronto on Thursday and Montreal on Saturday.
If they're looking for something positive to take from injuries to Thomas Vanek, Tim Connolly and Patrick Kaleta, it's the opportunity to see their young players down the stretch in games that matter. Ennis was summoned from Portland last week along with Nathan Gerbe and Mark Mancari. All three have played well.
Ennis has three points in his first three games and has not looked out of place since he was promoted Saturday from Portland. He's small like St. Louis, talented like St. Louis and fearless like St. Louis. He also was effective like St. Louis in the Sabres' playoff-clinching rout over the Bolts.
"I didn't say anything to him," Ennis said. "I was a little nervous."
The 5-foot-9, 163-pound Ennis had two assists in the 7-1 victory and showed why the Sabres selected him 26th overall in the 2008 NHL draft. He already has NHL hands and speed. He has shown no problem overcoming his lack of size, which was the reason St. Louis wasn't drafted and something he had to overcome.
St. Louis, of course, became one of the best players in the NHL. He won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player after leading the league in scoring and the Lightning to the Stanley Cup in 2004. He has 508 points in 486 games over five-plus seasons.
"He's been a definite role model," Ennis said. "I try to pattern my game after his. He was undrafted. It was cool to be on the same ice with him. You sit back and you're glad you're here, but you can't sit back too much because you get caught up in it. I'm just trying to get used to it, I guess."
Ennis played left wing on a line with Jochen Hecht and Jason Pominville in a 3-2 victory over the Bruins. He will likely stick around with Gerbe and Mancari until Vanek, Connolly and Kaleta recover from injuries. All three veterans are expected to miss several more games. Kaleta could be out for several weeks.
At the very least, the three rookies provide a glimpse into the future. It looks bright for Ennis, who is very creative and has terrific vision. He has plenty of speed for the NHL, but he doesn't look like a water bug on the ice. He plays under control and has no qualms about skating into tough areas around the net. He's even better when given time and space.
Ennis missed five games this season but still leads AHL rookies in scoring with 23 goals and 65 points, second behind Mancari in both departments for the team lead. He also was named the AHL's Most Valuable Player in the All-Star Game.
"He's what we call greasy," Ruff said. "He has great lateral movement. He can go left or right. It's the history of being a small man in the big game. He knows how to avoid the big collisions, but at the same time he's in traffic a lot. I find that incredible when you look at him and Nathan and the way they can operate at such a high level."
Gerbe also has made progress in an injury-plagued season. He played well against Boston while riding the left wing with center Paul Gaustad and Mike Grier. The Super G line? Not quite, but Gaustad has scored in three straight games. His and Grier's size and aggression mixed with Gerbe's skill caused problems against the Bruins. Mancari banged around with Matt Ellis and Adam Mair.
The Sabres knew the potential was there with Ennis. They wanted him to develop at the right pace this season and earn his way with a year in Portland. The AHL doesn't have the speed and skill you see in the NHL, but it's every bit as physical.
"He competes and has more patience with the puck than almost anyone on our team," Grier said. "It's pretty rare and a great trait to have, especially when you're a skill guy. He sticks his nose in there and doesn't back down. It's been pretty impressive. You have to be pretty happy if you're a Sabres' fan."