GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Sabres wanted Brian Gionta mostly for his off-ice leadership. He’s proved lately he’s still got the legs to produce on the ice, too.
The 36-year-old captain played on Buffalo’s top line for the second straight game Monday in the showdown with Arizona.
Because of injuries and departures, the Sabres have bumped the right winger up the depth chart and increased his role significantly.
“He’s played 14 seasons, and it looks like it’s his first,” Buffalo coach Ted Nolan said. “His enthusiastic approach to the games, the way he plays, the way he competes should make all the young kids given opportunities play even harder because of that. I’m really, really impressed with Brian’s approach.”
Gionta entered Gila River Arena with three goals and seven points in his previous seven games. He added an empty-net goal in Monday’s win over Arizona. It’s easily his best stretch with Buffalo and has boosted his totals to 11 goals and 27 points in 63 games.
“The more touches you get, the more minutes and ice time you get, you feel more comfortable with the puck in certain situations,” Gionta said. “Things have just been going in. For whatever reason, you get the bounces.”
Gionta has also worked to get the caroms, taking 37 shots during the eight games.
“Shots per game is something I’ve been focusing on,” he said. “You get an opportunity, you make sure you take advantage and get that shot on net instead of passing it up.”
Despite his increasing age, Gionta’s legs still have life.
The increased responsibilities at five-on-five and on the power play have resulted in much more ice time. He’s skated at least 20 minutes during 15 of 19 games, including a high of 24:50 during the first game against Arizona on Thursday.
“I feel good out there,” Gionta said. “At the same time, the coaches have been doing a good job on off days of getting rest.”
The captain, as expected, has still been needed in the dressing room. Buffalo signed him to a three-year deal last summer to teach their prospects how to be a pro. He’s been given plenty of chances with the Sabres’ trade-induced youth movement.
“More things come up, and as the younger guys come in you need to address certain things,” Gionta said. “That’s the process that you want to start before next camp. You can’t take back this experience they’re getting, 15-16 games of good NHL experience here. It’s great for their development.”
Nolan has been clear that he expects more from Nikita Zadorov. The defenseman got another chance to show something Monday night.
Zadorov, scratched Saturday in Colorado, was back in the lineup against Arizona. He skated with Mike Weber and replaced Tyson Strachan.
Nolan pulled Zadorov aside for a one-on-one chat after publicly asking for better play the past few days.
“I don’t think it’s messages,” Zadorov said. “There’s seven D, and someone’s got to sit. That was just my turn. I’ve got to be ready for the game.”
Zadorov was one of seven Sabres to take the ice Sunday for an optional workout, and the coaches put the defenseman through the hardest skate.
“I got the extra work because I didn’t play the day before, so I think it’s the same work that everyone did in the game,” he said.
The Sabres recalled goaltender Andrey Makarov from Rochester, and the 21-year-old backed up Anders Lindback. Matt Hackett, who played the final two periods in Colorado, missed the game with a lower-body injury.
“His injury from before, it was just kind of a reoccurrence of it,” Nolan said. “We’ll give him a little more time to rest this time.”
Tyler Ennis missed his second straight game with a shoulder injury. He joined the Sabres late in their morning skate to test his puckhandling and shooting.
“He looks really good,” Nolan said. “Hopefully, next game.”