Jason Pominville is sidelined for the foreseeable future with a lower-body injury that more specifically can be pinpointed to his left leg. Pominville will not be available for Game Six this afternoon against the Flyers, leaving Sabres coach Lindy Ruff with a difficult decision concerning his forwards.
What to do?
Pominville isn't easily replaced going into the biggest game of the season, or at least until Buffalo plays Game Seven in Philly or advances to the second round. Simple logic, if not conventional wisdom, suggested Ruff would fill the hole along the right wing and special teams with someone of equal or greater playoff experience.
Mark Parrish has 722 NHL games, six 20-goal seasons and 27 postseason tilts on his hockey resume. He was an option, yes, but not a very good one at this stage of his career. Mark Mancari was a natural choice given his big body and production in the AHL, and he has been hankering for a playoff game since the postseason began.
Ruff summoned veteran Matt Ellis from Portland with the idea the dependable grinder can help them through the game today. Ideally, the Sabres will figure out a way to beat the Flyers this afternoon and march into the second round. By the sounds of things, Derek Roy and Jochen Hecht could be available for Game Seven, if necessary.
Sounds like a plan.
You're not going to catch me second-guessing Ruff given his history, particularly in the postseason. The guy has been brilliant in reshaping the Sabres into a playoff team and guiding them to within a victory of closing out the Flyers. He's among the best coaches in the league and clearly knows what's best for his team.
It was a tough call to be sure, and his decision Saturday came without explanation.
Ruff has never shied away from a gamble, so it makes you wonder if he was tempted to roll the dice and promote rookie center Luke Adam after watching his spirited young players have a profound impact on this series.
Adam is the third straight Sabres' prospect to be named AHL Rookie of the Year after Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe. Adam shared the lead among AHL rookies with 29 points and 62 points in 57 games with Portland. He had three goals in 19 games with the Sabres this year before being shipped back to the farm.
He could have played the pivot, moving Brad Boyes to his natural position at right wing. Inexperience is likely what prompted the call for Ellis, the safer choice over Adam. The 20-year-old might not be ready, but he can't be far behind based on what the Sabres' other young guns have shown in the playoffs.
Ennis, Gerbe, Marc-Andre Gragnani and Mike Weber spent last season in Portland and are having the time of their lives in these playoffs. Their refreshing exuberance takes you back to the 2005-06 season, when Pominville, Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek and Paul Gaustad helped the Sabres to the conference finals as rookies.
Pominville is remembered for scoring a series-clinching, short-handed goal in overtime to lift the Sabres over Ottawa and into the third round. It's easy to forget he was a nervous, wide-eyed kid who scored 18 goals in only 57 games while breaking through in that illustrious first season after the lockout.
Vanek was a healthy scratch eight times in the playoffs despite scoring 25 goals that season. The Sabres were a bunch of kids who came together in Rochester the previous year. And that's precisely what you see today from their 20-something toddlers who played in Portland last season.
"It's just fun," Ennis said of the playoffs. "We're young but we're a pretty hard-working, driven team. We've got great leaders -- [Mike] Grier and [Tim] Connolly and Millsie, Goose, [Rob] Niedermayer -- they kind of keep us young guys on an even keel. They teach us a lot, and some guys are just excited to play."
Heck, it's exciting watching them.
Did you see Ennis after he scored in overtime Friday to give the Sabres a 3-2 series lead? He didn't skate off the ice or walk around the dressing room with the biggest goal of his career. He floated back to Buffalo, much the way Pominville did five years ago after his memorable moment in Ottawa.
The kiddie corps isn't just along for the ride. They practically commandeered the ship with their energy and effectiveness in Game Five. Ennis had two goals, the winner coming off Weber's slapper. Gragnani scored a big goal Friday and leads the Sabres with five postseason points. Gerbe scored a goal in Game Three and has played with an edge all series.
Clearly, these guys didn't get the memo stating they should succumb to jitters that come with the playoffs. They're either oblivious or indifferent toward the pressure. They're caught up in the moment now, but someday they'll realize just how much the second half of the season and the playoffs contributed to their development.
They're getting a PhD in playoff hockey, just as their fore-brothers did years ago en route to back-to-back visits to the conference finals. No matter what happens today, or next week, or next month, they're certain to be better players in the years ahead. In case you haven't noticed, they're not too shabby now.
"We need them," Vanek said. "They've been good for us all year long. It's going to take everyone at one time or another to make a big play."