Patrick Kane’s first public appearance in Buffalo since the summer’s sexual assault allegation will be as under-the-radar as it can get.
The annual visit by Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks is normally an all-day affair, with crowds gathering for the morning skate and returning to First Niagara Center for the evening game. But because the Sabres host Chicago at 1 p.m., there won’t be a morning skate. The Blackhawks will then leave immediately following the game because they host San Jose on Sunday.
Chicago even laid low on the day before the game, taking Friday off. It meant Kane didn’t have to talk in advance of his return.
The South Buffalo native still figures to be under an intense spotlight for a few hours. He is the NHL’s leading scorer with points in 27 of the last 28 games, so he’ll be watched on the ice. He will have a large cheering section of friends and family, but it will be intriguing to hear the reaction of other Buffalonians. It will also be interesting to hear what he has to say during interviews.
The Sabres will play their 34th game. It will be just the sixth time they’ll have three healthy scoring lines.
Tyler Ennis, who has missed 15 games with an upper-body injury, will return for the showdown with the Blackhawks.
“They’ve been probably the best team in the league for the last five years,” Ennis said. “It’s going to be a fun one, a really good test for us to see where we’re at. I’m excited to get back.
“We seem to be playing a really good team game, so I’m just trying to jump in the lineup, provide a spark and hopefully put one in the net.”
The Sabres haven’t had their top three lines healthy since a five-game run from Oct. 15-24. Before Ennis went out, Zemgus Girgensons was hurt. Evander Kane preceded Girgensons on the injured list. Brian Gionta started the season on the sidelines.
The lines in practice were Jamie McGinn-Ryan O’Reilly-Sam Reinhart, Kane-Jack Eichel-Ennis, Girgensons-Johan Larsson-Gionta and Matt Moulson-David Legwand-Nicolas Deslauriers. Marcus Foligno, who practiced in a noncontact role, is the only forward banged up.
“We’re finally going to be healthy in our top six, which we haven’t been in a while,” said coach Dan Bylsma, who has noticed a little pep in the laid-back Ennis. “He’s not a guy who comes off with a lot of excitement, but the last few days he’s been pretty excited to get back to health and possibly get back out there.
“We’re going to need him out there. Our power play, he’s going to get inserted there and probably play next to Jack and Evander for a good portion of the game.”
Chad Johnson, who had a 44-save shutout of Anaheim on Thursday, will start in goal for the Sabres. He is 9-9-1 with a .918 save percentage and 2.33 goals-against average.
“He’s just solid, compact and in control,” Bylsma said. “Pretty much in every aspect of Johnny and the way he prepares and the way he practices, the way he is, you get that controlled, calm demeanor from him. It shows in his net.”
Jake McCabe scored against the Ducks, and Bylsma had praise for the defenseman and partner Zach Bogosian. They’re skating as the No. 2 pair behind Rasmus Ristolainen and Josh Gorges.
“We’ve counted on Risto and Gorges to play hard minutes against some good players, but now we have a second pair in McCabe and Bogo that can do a good job against just about anybody,” said Bylsma, who likes McCabe’s offensive instincts. “He’s been up in the play, supporting the play, adding to the rush, adding in the offensive zone. Right now it’s a formidable pair.”
One day after recording his first NHL point in three years, Cal O’Reilly left the league. Buffalo sent the center back to Rochester on Friday after a two-week call-up. O’Reilly appeared in two games, averaging 6:35 of ice time. He had an assist against Anaheim.
With Ennis back, O’Reilly was scheduled to be scratched by the Sabres. Instead, he was set for a two-game weekend. The Amerks hosted Hartford on Friday and will welcome Albany to town Saturday.