Tim Connolly really likes the work he is doing defensively with linemates Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville. The Buffalo Sabres' trio is being aggressive in the defensive zone, Connolly said Wednesday, and they're being responsible. The center would like to keep that up.
Defense, however, isn't why Connolly, Vanek and Pominville are a unit. They are the three most talented offensive players left on the roster, and they were put together five games ago to score. In the last four games, including Tuesday's 5-2 loss to Philadelphia, they have nothing.
"We put them together to try and generate five-on-five," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "You look at opportunities. If the opportunities are aplenty, you know it will start going. [Tuesday] night, I think five-on-five they had one opportunity that materialized into a Grade A scoring chance. You're not going to score with just one. The [Paul] Gaustad line had six. The [Jochen] Hecht line had five. That line had one, and we're looking for a little bit more out of them."
They'll get another chance tonight in an important home game against Carolina, provided Vanek feels better (he missed practice Wednesday with a hand injury but is expected back). The ninth-place Hurricanes visit HSBC Arena one position and seven points ahead of the Sabres in the Eastern Conference.
"It is big. The way you move up is to play the teams that are right around you," Ruff said. "We've got an opportunity to play Carolina, who is just above us, and you call these four-point games. They really turn out to be."
Scoring from the top line would help. The trio struck twice at even strength in their first game together, helping the Sabres beat Boston, 7-6, in a New Year's Day shootout. Vanek has two power-play goals since, but they've got nothing to show from their five-on-five play.
"We've got to create some more chances offensively, get some more pucks to the net, make some quicker plays to the net," Connolly said. "Defensively we've done a good job of playing aggressive in our end. We've got to play a bit more aggressive in their end."
Connolly has no goals and three assists since returning from a broken nose Jan. 1. The Sabres expected him to replace Derek Roy's scoring with the No. 1 center lost for the season because of quad surgery, but it hasn't happened.
"We won some games," said Connolly, whose team is 3-1-1 since his return. "That's been a positive. We've just got to continue to be aggressive offensively and continue to play aggressive defensively."
Ruff would like some of the offensive aggression to come from Connolly's stick. The center is averaging only 2.4 shots per game this season and 2.0 since his return. He has just one over the past two games.
"It's probably my biggest pet peeve," Ruff said. "I'd like to see him get more pucks to the net. His mindset is always to look for Thomas.
"He has that passing mentality, and I think that he could get on the board more often if he shot some. Even if they don't turn into goals, they may turn into Grade A scoring opportunities."
Connolly has scored just twice since Oct. 29, though he missed 12 games with groin and nose injuries. He has six goals, 11 assists and a minus-11 rating in 30 games. He had been playing with a full shield but will shed that for a visor tonight after getting a positive checkup Wednesday from his nose doctor.
"When we do the job defensively, you want to be able to create some chances offensively," said Connolly, whose line has given up one even-strength goal. "We've just got to continue to work at it."
Vanek skipped Wednesday's workout after getting his hand taped during the loss to the Flyers.
"Thomas is a little banged up, so we had to give him the morning off," Ruff said. "Hopefully, he'll be OK. There's concern. He was too sore. We'll see where he's at [this] morning."
Center Luke Adam practiced and is available after missing Tuesday's game with the flu. Right wing Patrick Kaleta (broken hand) skated with his teammates but will miss his sixth straight game and more.
"He saw our doctors, and he won't be back for at least a week, at the minimum," Ruff said.
Left wing Nathan Gerbe played for the first time in five games against the Flyers and was impressive. Filling in for the ill Adam, Gerbe had one assist and three shots in joining Gaustad and right wing Cody McCormick in several scoring chances.
He had been scratched in the previous four outings while Ruff dressed 11 forwards and seven defensemen. Gerbe hopes the offensive output encourages Ruff to return to four full forward lines and three defense pairings. The coach said it's a possibility.
"I hope so, but that's out of my control," Gerbe said. "Whatever games I'm playing, I'll show up and play and do my best. That's all I can do.
"It was a pretty good game for myself for not playing for a bit. Jumping back into it, I wanted to make sure I got my feet going and play a pretty smart game. I thought I did that."