The Sabres’ two-week run through the Central Division might be their most difficult stretch of the season. They can use all the help they can get, so Evander Kane’s return is coming at an ideal time.
Buffalo’s top left winger, who has missed 10 games with a knee sprain, is expected to be in the lineup Thursday when the Sabres visit St. Louis.
“I’m looking forward to that,” Kane said Wednesday in First Niagara Center. “I thought I would have a chance to play on the trip, and it looks like that’s going to be the case.”
Kane was flying during practice, and he ended the session by skating up to coach Dan Bylsma and providing an update on the injury.
“He’s been telling me about his progress for four, five days now,” Bylsma said. “He hasn’t had a ton of contact in the two practices we’ve had, but I feel good about the way he’s skating.”
Kane practiced with center Jack Eichel and right wing Sam Reinhart, giving offensive potential to a team that has scored two goals in two games.
“I’m looking forward to playing with those two guys,” Kane said. “They’re both younger guys, such as myself. I think we’ve got some good chemistry off the ice, too, and I think that can kind of help translate on the ice.”
The Sabres are in a seven-game run in which they face St. Louis, Dallas and Nashville six times. The Western Conference powerhouses have combined for a 38-13-4 record.
“I’m looking forward to coming in, especially against the teams we’re playing the next couple games here,” Kane said. “It’s going to be a good test for myself, obviously, coming off injury, and a good test for our team. I’m looking forward to helping contribute hopefully in some wins.”
While the Sabres got good news about the health of Kane, things weren’t as rosy for Zemgus Girgensons. The center will miss at least the next two games with an upper-body injury after not joining his teammates for the road trip to St. Louis and Dallas. Bylsma said it’s possible Girgensons will be ready when the Sabres host the Blues on Monday.
Though Girgensons has struggled offensively with just one goal and one assist in 17 games, he’s been important on the defensive end. That could be an issue against the high-scoring Blues and Stars, who will have the last line change as the home team.
“He’s a big factor to our team in how we use him and where we use him and the quality of competition he plays against,” Bylsma said. “Right now we’ve seen a pretty straight matchup with Ryan O’Reilly’s line, especially at home, against the top line of the opposition. But on the road it really was Zemgus and Ryan sharing those duties with not getting the last change, so his quality of competition has been high.
“We’ve used him against other team’s top lines, and he’s come out on the positive side of the possession with his line. That says a lot about what he has been bringing to our team and maybe a little bit past the goals and assist that he does have.”
Bylsma would love to give O’Reilly a break from the opponents’ top lines.
“This guy’s also trying to score goals for us as well,” the coach said. “It’s taken away from getting offense at the other end, and that has to be distributed throughout the team. As a group, we have to be better there and look for goals and chances throughout our lineup.
“We need more offense five-on-five from everybody.”
Tyler Ennis has no goals in the last seven games and only three this season. Bylsma can tell the forward is feeling the strain.
“He’s trying to make a lot happen with every time he touches the puck,” the coach said. “He has that mentality and is probably trying to shoulder the load a little bit, so yes, I think he’s pressing.”
Bylsma is moving Ennis down the lineup. The right winger practiced on the third line with center Johan Larsson and left wing Marcus Foligno. Larsson and Ennis combined for eight goals and 24 points in the final 16 games of last season.
“I went back and looked at the success he had last year, watched a lot of the goals and points and plays,” Bylsma said. “That is one of the factors” for the line change.
Reinhart’s offensive instincts have never been questioned. The rookie center provided a vital screen on Buffalo’s lone goal Tuesday in a 2-1 loss to Dallas and put a rocket into the top corner that was overturned by an offside call.
It is the 20-year-old’s toughness and speed that have needed work. Bylsma has seen steady progression in both.
“He has made real, real large steps and huge improvements in his game since Sept. 1, since the start of the year,” Bylsma said. “His skating and his puck battles and strength in certain areas - wall play, around the net - have been a huge improvement.”