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Sabres’ Reinhart being rewarded for improved play

Everyone wants to be rewarded for a job well done, to know that their efforts are recognized. Lately, Sam Reinhart has felt the love.

In the six games since scoring a game-winning goal in Florida, Reinhart has seen a boost in playing time and responsibilities. Sabres coach Dan Bylsma has bumped up the rookie’s minutes and moved him to Jack Eichel’s wing.

It’s done wonders for the 20-year-old’s confidence heading into Friday’s home game against Carolina.

“I’ve felt when I’ve been playing my best I’ve been getting rewarded, so it’s nice to know that the little things are getting recognized,” Reinhart said in First Niagara Center. “A lot of my confidence comes from knowing that they’re believing in me and are able to put me out there.”

Reinhart, who is averaging 14:07 of ice time this season, has skated 16:09 during the last six games. He’s scored once, had another erased by offsides and has taken nine of his 34 shots during the run.

There’s more that has caught Bylsma’s eye.

“He’s just gotten better and better and better with his play,” the coach said. “The pace of his game has picked up. The puck battles have picked up. His initiating plays has picked up.

“He’s one of the smarter, better positional players. That’s his forte, so you’ve added the pace and you’ve added the puck battle. You’ve added that to his game, and you’ve seen it virtually every game.”

Reinhart had one of his least-successful outings Wednesday during a 3-2 loss to Nashville. He was on the ice for two Predators goals and saw his ice time dip to 13:44, just one game after he set a career high of 18:54.

He’s already shown a tendency to quickly rebound from rough games. It’s a quality trait in anyone, let alone someone with 31 career games.

“I still had those chances, so I’m just going to stick with it,” Reinhart said. “In a situation like this, you’ve got to stay positive. Hopefully, I can start burying some opportunities now.”

An improved shot has helped Reinhart record four goals, which ranks in a tie for third on the offensively challenged Sabres and 11th among NHL rookies. He stays on the ice after practice with Ryan O’Reilly, learning how to improve his accuracy and velocity.

“There’s a lot of after-practice hours that have been spent already this year. That adds up,” Reinhart said. “Obviously, the shot’s an easier thing to work on. When I left last year, I knew right away that was a big part of it. I’ve been able to spend a lot of time this year, this past summer and even last year working on it. I feel a lot more comfortable with it, a lot more confident with it.”

Bylsma would like to see more of it.

“He’s been the most improved guy with his shot since the start of his season,” the coach said. “He had a muffin to start the season. He’s worked hard on it. You’ve seen him ring a couple off some heads and some ears in some games. He scored the goal that got called back here in the building.

“It was an excellent shot, so I’d like to see him use it more.”

While Reinhart wasn’t ready to compete with bigger players during his nine-game tryout last season, the 6-foot-1, 189-pounder can stand up more this year. He’s not going to initiate the physicality, as his seven hits in 22 games show, but he can better withstand the pounding. He’s become a fixture at the top of the crease.

“In terms of being engaged, I think that comes with the confidence, just knowing that I can compete with kind of anyone out there,” Reinhart said. “That’s really important for me to go through and learn. It’s not that I haven’t been able to do it before. It’s just kind of convincing myself and learning how to compete and battle at that level.

“I feel a lot better.”

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The Sabres’ 0-4-2 slide has dropped them into last place in the Atlantic Division and into a tie for 27th in the 30-team NHL. Buffalo is 8-12-2 with 18 points, just three more than 30th-ranked Edmonton and 18 behind the league- and division-leading Montreal Canadiens.

The Hurricanes’ 8-10-4 record has been bolstered by a 2-0-1 run heading into Friday. They’ve beaten Los Angeles and Edmonton while losing in overtime to Philadelphia.

“You have to hate to lose,” coach Bill Peters told reporters in Carolina after Wednesday’s 4-1 victory over Edmonton. “You’ve got to be competitive in this sport. Every game is a dog fight. Losing is a disease, and winning is an unquenchable thirst that you have if you have it.”

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The Sabres keep saying it, over and over.

“We’re getting the chances. We just need to bury them.”

After outshooting Nashville, 32-20, but losing, the Sabres again went to their refrain. It turns out they’re right.

A shot chart compiled by HockeyStats.ca showed the Sabres attempted 22 shots from inside the faceoff circles. They connected on just one. Buffalo’s season shooting percentage is 6.8 percent, tied with Carolina for 28th in the NHL.

“You look at all the games, we had chances,” left wing Evander Kane said. “You can look at the positives. We’ve definitely competed with those teams and outplayed them at times, but that only takes you so far. You’ve got to win. This is a results league, so winning’s the main thing no matter how you play.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com

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