It's simply a matter of confidence, Tyler Ennis says. He believes he can create something whenever the puck is on his stick. That's why he doesn't let it go. The Buffalo Sabres forward will circle the zone and hold the puck longer than most players because he's certain something good will happen.
"You've just got to be confident and patient," Ennis said Friday. "I think some guys want to get it away quickly because they don't want to mess up. I always try to be creative and kind of think outside the box, maybe take pucks to spots they normally don't get taken to, maybe hang onto it longer than normal. Sometimes I get in trouble for it and put myself in bad positions, but for the most part I think it works out."
Things certainly have been working out lately. Ennis has been one of the Sabres' better players this month, a trend the rookie will try to continue tonight when the Atlanta Thrashers visit HSBC Arena.
Ennis had a career-best three-game point streak snapped during Tuesday's 1-0 loss to Carolina, one of the few times he hasn't been on the scoresheet recently. The 21-year-old has four goals and four assists in nine games during March, including three goals and two assists during his streak.
"He's played really well for us," coach Lindy Ruff said following practice in Northtown Center in Amherst. "Energy in the game has been good. I think he's shooting the puck well right now. He had two point-blank chances against Carolina. One missed the net, one obviously hit [goaltender Cam Ward], but he's in on a lot of chances every game, which usually tells you you're going to get points."
Ennis has 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points in 70 games this season. He entered Friday's action tied for the rookie lead in helpers and was third among first-year players in points.
"He's probably in line with what we expected," Ruff said. "He's right near the top there with the rookies. He's had a couple real good stretches, he had a couple down stretches where there wasn't a lot of energy in his game, and that seems to be typical, but I think recently he's played some of his best hockey for us."
This will be a bit of a milestone weekend for Ennis. The Sabres will host Nashville on Sunday, and if Ennis plays in both games (he hasn't missed a game all season) he'll reach 82 games for his career -- a full NHL season. He has 20 goals and 52 points through 80 games, showing the potential that made him the Sabres' second first-round selection in the 2008 draft.
"I feel good this year and I feel like I'm getting better," Ennis said. "I just like the way I've been competing lately. I think it's really important in the NHL just to work your hardest every shift.
"Sometimes you get caught out there too long, so I'm trying to keep them short, but as long as you're trying your hardest and competing on pucks and taking the puck to the net, that's the biggest thing."
There's probably no one on Sabres who competes with pucks more. The shifty, speedy winger has been noticeable with his puck possession. The 5-foot-9, 157-pounder doesn't hesitate to skate around the whole zone before passing or shooting, a trait that likens him to Maxim Afinogenov back in the Russian's better days.
"I think when he's in tight, there are a lot of similarities, especially down low where you think he should be trapped and he's not," Ruff acknowledged.
There are a few times when Ennis looks like the Afinogenov who was lost in his last couple of seasons with Buffalo. Ennis looks back at late December as his worst moments. He had a stretch of nine games with just one assist, but since breaking out of that slump in mid-January, he's gone more than two games without a point only once.
He credits chats with the coaching staff for getting him back to being an impact player.
"We had some good talks, and I just had to stick to my game," Ennis said. "I was kind of going outside my game, doing a little too much. I was just trying to get back to basics, and around the San Jose game [Jan. 6] I think I just tried to really compete hard and just work hard all over the ice, and that's when it kind of changed for me a little bit. It's been going good for me since then."
It should be no surprise Ennis' game is elevating as the number of games are dwindling. He played the final 10 games of last season and had nine points, then followed that with four points in six playoff games. He had eight goals and 19 points in 11 postseason contests with Medicine Hat during his last year of juniors.
Ennis, then, loves crunch time. With the Thrashers just four points behind the Sabres for the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot, tonight will again have a playoff-like feel.
"It's really fun," he said. "I got called up kind of around this time last year and had a great time. It was really exciting down the stretch, so I'm looking forward to that this year."