When Drew Stafford returned from injury last week, he looked over at linemates Tyler Ennis and Matt Moulson. He got excited. The Sabres right winger knew he’d have an opportunity to put up points and just had to take advantage.
Stafford’s best two-game stretch since March 2012 shows he has.
Stafford has three goals and four points in the last two outings, helping give Buffalo a potent first line entering tonight’s home game against Carolina.
“This year’s been pretty tough for everybody offensively,” Stafford said Wednesday in First Niagara Center. “I feel as though I’ve been getting the shots and getting in the areas. They just haven’t been going until recently.”
Stafford, Moulson and Ennis have combined for four goals, 10 points and 31 shots in the three games since Stafford returned.
“Staff’s playing great right now,” Ennis said. “I’m just looking to find him because when he gets hot he gets real hot.”
Coach Ted Nolan knew Stafford could help his club. Nolan put the right winger, who struggled mightily last season with six goals in 46 games, in a prominent role as soon as he stepped behind the bench.
“We all need someone to believe in us and give opportunities,” Nolan said. “Drew is a proven player. He’s played here for a while. I think he deserved all the respect a player of his magnitude deserves.
“He didn’t disappoint. He competed, but it just didn’t go in for him. Now the last few weeks the puck seems to be finding the back of the net.”
Stafford has boosted his numbers to seven goals and 17 points in 44 games. He’s not on pace to match his 31-goal season of 2010-11, but he likes his game since Nolan came aboard in November.
“He just wants guys to go play,” Stafford said. “It’s just go out there and use your strengths. Each one of us in this room is in the NHL for a reason. We’re all good hockey players, and it’s just a matter of finding that mind-set or making sure your heads are in the right place where you can just go out and play free, not have to think or worry about anything else.
“There’s not a lot of external stuff with Ted. He just puts guys in position where they can feel comfortable enough in their own ability and let everything else take care of itself.”
Stafford is second on the Sabres with 107 shots, and the firing point is what has helped lately. His two goals Tuesday came from the slot, and he earned an assist by driving to the net and creating a rebound goal for Steve Ott.
“He’s starting to get his groove a little bit,” Nolan said. “He’s going into those areas where you need to go. It’s finally paying off for him.”
Phil Varone is in line to make his NHL debut tonight. The Sabres have called up the 23-year-old from Rochester while sending down forward Kevin Porter and defenseman Brayden McNabb.
Varone (pronounced vuh-Roan-ay) is the Amerks’ leading scorer with 33 points, including 25 assists, in 38 games. He’s in his third season in the Sabres’ organization and has 30 goals and 120 points in 190 minor-league games.
Porter is healthy after missing more than a month with a knee injury. He had no goals and one assist in 12 games with Buffalo.
McNabb has no points in 12 games. His departure leaves the Sabres with seven defensemen, though blue-liner Mark Pysyk skipped practice Wednesday with an injury.
Nolan has spoken out against staged fights and line brawls, which seems at odds with the rough-and-tumble teams he had during his first stint with the Sabres. He wants it known that despite his hockey-first stance, he hasn’t gone soft.
“No, I haven’t softened at all,” the coach said. “I love aggressive hockey. I really do. It’s a collision sport, and it should be.
“But I never once sent Rob Ray out to fight. I never sent Brad May out to fight. I never sent Matthew Barnaby out to fight. Certainly, those were the type of characters that they were, and they were very competitive, and they fought. We haven’t got those type of players. I’m quite sure if we had them, we’d probably be seeing the same thing.”