OTTAWA – Sabres defenseman Andrej Meszaros is finally feeling good about his game and he was in a very comfortable place Monday night, returning to the site of some of the best hockey of his career.
Meszaros was a stalwart for the Ottawa Senators in the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, the latter ending in the Stanley Cup final against Anaheim. Injuries have battered his career since, but Meszaros has been better of late after a brutal start to his first season in Buffalo.
“Going through ’07 was a special year, even more because it was only my second year in the league,” Meszaros said prior to Monday’s game between the Sabres and Senators. “To make it to the Stanley Cup final was so big. We didn’t go all the way, but the memories I have of the crowd, the whole city, the way it was jumping, it was an unbelievable moment.
“And there were so many wild games with Buffalo. The two playoff series those two years are something you never forget, whether it was the one we won or the one we lost.”
With Rasmus Ristolainen leaving Saturday’s game early with the flu, Meszaros played 24:07 in the shootout win over the New York Islanders. It was his highest ice total since Nov. 5 and the first time in 13 games he cracked 20 minutes.
Meszaros’ last three games, in fact, have probably been his best of the season. He scored his first goal as a Sabre in the Dec. 21 overtime loss in Boston, then posted a plus-2 rating in the 6-3 loss in Detroit two nights later.
“Everybody needs confidence. It’s all in your head,” he said. “If you don’t have confidence and don’t trust yourself, you’re not doing things like you’re supposed to do and it’s tough. Playing 24 minutes the other night was awesome for me.”
“Veterans usually have that calming influence and you don’t panic with the puck. You expect that from younger defensemen,” said coach Ted Nolan. “Sometimes it takes a little time, and it seems to me he’s playing his best.”
Meszaros took the ice Monday again playing alongside Mike Weber and unofficially played 19:30 in the game. He signed a one-year, $4 million contract in the offseason and most observers unanimously agreed it was simply a move to get the Sabres to the salary cap floor.
That said, Buffalo expected more than it got from Meszaros as he was minus-10 in his first nine games.
“It was very tough. We didn’t have a good start and personally I wasn’t playing well,” he said. “At some point, we turned it around. Individuals started playing better, we started getting wins and my game improved too.
“I’m not panicking, trying to play more physical. The coaches really want that from me, they want me to do little things.”
Meszaros and fellow free agent signee Andre Benoit have been noticeably better of late – and Benoit entered Monday with a robust plus-8 rating in December.
“Both Meszaros and Benoit got off to a rocky start, which almost everybody on our team did,” said Nolan. “Sometimes people have a tendency to point fingers at certain individuals. The last three games have probably been the best Meszaros has been since he’s been here. Benoit, same thing.”
Tyson Strachan took the morning skate and the warmup but was the healthy scratch on defense. Ristolainen remained ill and did not make the trip. Strachan was taken off injured reserve and Tyler Myers was put on IR to make room.
The Sabres were missing four injured players in Myers, Brian Gionta, Marcus Foligno and Torrey Mitchell. Foligno is going to be out at least six weeks after hand surgery, and the others are on a week-to-week basis.
The Sabres waived goaltender Matt Hackett early Monday afternoon, clearly as a way to get him through to Rochester. Hackett suffered a major knee injury in April and has not played in a game since, although he has been skating for several weeks.
Hackett can be claimed until noon Tuesday, at which time he’s expected to go to the Amerks if he is unclaimed.
The Sabres announced they will hold four 50-50 raffle drawings during Wednesday night’s “Tux and Pucks” game against Tampa Bay in First Niagara Center. The grand prize will have a guaranteed minimum pot of $20,015, with the three other drawings having a guaranteed prize amount of $2,015.
The game has a special start time of 6 p.m. Raffle tickets will be sold starting at 4, through the end of the second intermission. Team president Ted Black will announce the winning numbers during the third period. Proceeds benefit the Buffalo Sabres Foundation.
Fans are encouraged to dress in their New Year’s Eve finery, and game sponsor Tuxedo Junction is offering a $20.15 tuxedo rental for fans who bring their game ticket to any area location.
Ottawa’s Mark Borowiecki missed the game after suffering a leg laceration during the Senators’ pregame soccer warmup in the dressing room hallway.