Tyler Myers has freely admitted several times this season the pressure of living up to his Calder Trophy rookie year got to him. The loss of partner Henrik Tallinder to free agency was unnerving as well.
In the first half, as the Sabres' struggles deepened, Myers looked nothing like the defenseman they saw every night last year. In the second half, Myers looks like that guy again and is starting to dominate opponents physically more than ever.
It's no coincidence the Sabres are winning again. A woeful minus-15 in the first half of the season, Myers is plus-7 in the second half as the Sabres have taken off to crack the Eastern Conference's top eight.
"I wish I would have started playing like this earlier but this is the type of game I want to play," Myers said after practice Thursday in HSBC Arena. "Especially in the [defensive] zone with my size, I want to be more physical. I'll keep focusing on trying to play that way and also bringing an element of offense."
Myers enters Saturday's game against Atlanta with 10 goals, one shy of last year's total of 11.
"When you play better in your own end, the opportunities up ice are more evident," said coach Lindy Ruff. "A lot of cases with Tyler earlier in the year, he was just trying too much one-on-one. He was trying to overhandle [the puck] in his own end and wasn't using people."
Myers struggled without Tallinder early in the season and has had to learn how to play with different partners. Myers and Andrej Sekera had one good stretch and Myers had another good set with Chris Butler. When Butler was scratched Tuesday against Carolina, Myers was reunited with Sekera.
"We've done so much switching this year I think I've just gotten used to it," Myers said.
Five of the seven defensemen have been out of the lineup at least once in the last 10 games, although Jordan Leopold's absence was due to injury. Only Myers and Leopold have escaped Ruff's scratch offs. Steve Montador was put in the press box for the first time Sunday against Ottawa and returned Tuesday, although he still struggled.
"They want to make the right choice and every one of us wants to be in there as much as the next guy for the most part," said Montador. "You want to be in there. We don't look at it as an individual sense as much as a pairing sense as far as knowing who you're with."
"You're just looking to try to dress your best six to give you the best chance to win a game," Ruff said. " 'Monty' had a little bit of a tough night again, which always raises questions of whether you want to keep the shuffle going or try to stick with him and let him work his way out."
There's no longer any such doubt about Myers. He grew to 6-foot-8 over the summer and his weight is in the 225-pound range. At 21, many observers felt Myers still needed to grow into his body to be effective.
"I have to be happy with the point I've gotten myself to right now," he said. "The physical play has definitely helped me a lot. I know I didn't start the season that way but that was more mental, not growing. I hope to put on some weight here this summer but I think I'm finally done growing up."
Ruff said the Sabres haven't completely closed the door on a return by center Derek Roy, who suffered a torn quadriceps Dec. 23. General Manager Darcy Regier said on trade deadline day that Roy would not be able to play again this year but Ruff said Thursday Roy would likely be ready to go by mid-May.
Of course, that would mean the Sabres would be either deep in round two or perhaps at the start of the Eastern Conference finals.
Ruff said Jochen Hecht (upper body) remains day-to-day while Patrick Kaleta and Patrick Lalime (knee) are both progressing.
The Sabres dressed prior to practice in their 40th anniversary blue jerseys for their annual team picture, their first with new owner Terry Pegula in the shot. And Pegula held Rick Martin's No. 7 jersey in the picture.
"It was a classy move to remember Rico, to sort of in spirit have him there in that photo," Ruff said.
The team has also painted a blue No. 7 outlined in gold on the ice behind both nets in another tribute to Martin.