FARMERS BRANCH, Texas – After the kind of disaster Josh Gorges endured in his first season in Buffalo, it was hard to envision him as a top-pair defenseman this season. Zach Bogosian’s injury certainly elevated Gorges’ role some but the 31-year-old is quietly putting together a much better season for the Sabres.
Quietly. Key word when you’re talking about a defenseman. Going unnoticed is a good thing.
Gorges has posted a minus rating just once in his last 10 games while playing alongside Rasmus Ristolainen. He played 22 minutes, 57 seconds in Thursday’s shootout loss in St. Louis, his 12th game of the season over 20 minutes. You would imagine it will be more of the same for Gorges Saturday night against the Dallas Stars in American Airlines Center.
Gorges is minus-2 on the season, a huge step up from the hideous minus-28 he compiled in 46 games last year. He missed the last three months for what was later revealed to be microfracture surgery in his knee, and his improved mobility on the ice is plainly evident.
“I feel good coming off all the different situations last year, taking the summer to come in with a fresh mindset,” Gorges said Friday after the team practiced in this Dallas suburb. “I feel healthy and that’s a good thing. Being around these guys with their energy and excitement has been a lot of fun so far. We’ve got a long ways to go but it’s been fun.”
Look at the numbers of any returning Sabres player any way you want and most will be better for a Buffalo team that’s 8-9-2 and competing against high-level opponents. It was a far cry from last year, when the Sabres entered game 20 with a 4-13-2 mark.
According to War-on-ice.com, Gorges is carrying a Corsi For rating of 46.5 percent when he’s on the ice. Perhaps that seems pedestrian when it shows that opponents are taking 53.5 percent of the shot attempts when Gorges is in the game. But then realize Gorges’ number was just 34.1 percent last season, and his Corsi For per 60 minutes of ice time has jumped from 34.6 percent to 48.6.
“You don’t know how things will play out but you want to get better from game to game and from year to year and I think I’m doing that,” said Gorges, whom the Sabres have under contract through 2018. “I don’t think you’re ever satisfied. You just want to contribute and see where things fall.”
Gorges, remember, was nearly traded to Toronto for good friend Cody Franson in the summer of 2014 before famously nixing that deal and telling the Canadiens he’d come to Buffalo instead. Franson, his neighbor in Kelowna, B.C., joined the Sabres in September as a free agent.
“It’s been a lot of fun to see,” Franson said. “He’s playing well and is obviously a big part of this puzzle. He’s a leader and someone guys follow. Having him out there playing the way he is is big for our group.”
Gorges was pleased with Buffalo’s effort in St. Louis, a game that the Sabres outshot the Blues, 34-29, and saw them score the only two goals in 5-on-5 play. But the power play failed to score on a pair of 5-on-3 situations and the penalty killers were burned for a pair of goals.
“Last night we were in a fight. That’s a good team, especially in St. Louis, and we were right there with them,” Gorges said. “Obviously there’s some things we need improvement on and we fell short in a skills competition but there’s a lot of positive things to build on heading into another tough game.”
The Sabres practiced for about 40 minutes Friday in the Dr. Pepper StarCenter about 20 miles north of downtown. Much of it was spent on short, quick passes, clearly hoping to help the power-play units. Buffalo’s 5-on-3 game came up empty in St. Louis despite six shots on goal during a third-period opportunity.
“The statistics aren’t close to this but you feel like you should score and we missed that opportunity,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “We had a big portion of time with three really good looks at the net. ... and we don’t get the goal. That’s really the bottom line with the 5-on-3.”
Bogosian and Ryan O’Reilly took maintenance days and Bylsma said both will play. Mark Pysyk (lower body) did not skate and is still undergoing evaluation. He will miss his second straight game due to the injury.
Bogosian has stepped back into heavy minutes in his first two games of the season after missing the first 17 games with a lower-body injury. He played 21:03 Tuesday against Dallas and 23:43 in Thursday’s overtime contest.
Bylsma marveled at O’Reilly’s 16-5 night in the faceoff circle against the Blues that keyed Buffalo’s 31-19 advantage in that category. O’Reilly went 10-0 in the game against the St. Lous pair of Jori Lehtera and Alexander Steen, and was 9-0 on draws in the third period and overtime.
“You almost have to put him on the ice in the defensive zone when you need a big draw and it almost detracts from his offense,” Bylsma said. “I feel like we’re more overtaxing and overburdening him on the defensive side because he’s been so good in the faceoff circle.”
Coach Lindy Ruff’s Stars did not practice Friday with some players nursing the flu and the team coming off a late-night flight home following Thursday’s 3-2 win in Washington. The win was their fourth straight and put them at 16-4, a franchise record for the first 20 games and the best mark in the NHL.