By JAY SKURSKI
News Sports Reporter
Like so many other forwards in the Buffalo Sabres’ organization, Phil Varone’s 2015-16 season has not gone to plan.
He gets a chance to change that Saturday night.
Varone was called up from the Rochester Americans to replace injured forward Zemgus Girgensons, who is day to day with an upper-body injury and will not play when the Sabres host the Eastern Conference-leading Washington Capitals at First Niagara Center (7 p.m., MSG, WGR 550).
“To be honest, I didn’t even know there was an injury,” Varone said after the Sabres’ optional morning skate. Rochester coach Randy Cunneyworth “gave me a call after our game and just said to be here for morning.”
Varone, 25, played 28 games with the Sabres in 2014-15, at one point serving as the team’s No. 1 center. He led the Amerks with 15 goals and 44 points last season, and this year is once again Rochester’s leading goal-scorer with 10.
He’s also a team-worst minus-20, as Rochester has been plagued with the same goal-scoring problem that has afflicted the parent club. Varone is one of eight Amerks with more than 260 games of professional experience, which has put the farm club in a bit of a bind. AHL rules prohibit teams from playing more than six such players on a given night. Varone and others have had to deal with being a healthy scratch.
“It's definitely different, my first time going around being a vet,” he said. “It's tough for all of us. It's tough for Matt Ellis, Patrick Kaleta, Jason Akeson, all of us.
"But that's the cards we were dealt and we have to deal with it. We're professionals. It's tough at times. You want to play every day but there's quality guys sitting out. As much as it is unfair at times, you have to take it with a grain of salt, come to the rink every day and work hard."
As a result, developing chemistry has been a challenge.
“We've been inconsistent as a team, trying to find our way a little bit,” Varone said. “It's been tough, maybe a little more challenging than past years. But we're professionals. We have to deal with it. Do I wish it was different? Obviously. But we have to come to work every day and try to correct every wrong."
Varone is playing on a one-year contract and may not have many opportunities left to show the Sabres he should be a part of their long-term plans.
“I think I proved to myself last year the first 10 games here that I can make things happen,” he said. “I think I kind of hit a rut towards the end of the season when I was here. I think I can make plays and I'm just going to play a 200-foot game, try to make things happen with the puck, create havoc out there and bring some energy.”
Varone scored two goals in just his second career NHL game a little more than a year ago, but found the net just once more the rest of the season, finishing with three goals and five points in his first stint with the Sabres – including just one assist over his final 17 games.
“It's picking your spots, understanding the time of game, how long you've been on the ice, situations you're up against,” Varone said. “I think over the years it's something I've really learned. There have been times I've tried to do too much and make it happen all at once and that's a direct reflection of being hard on myself. Sometimes you've got to be patient.”
Varone had a season-high four-point game for the Amerks on Jan. 8, and although he didn’t produce any points in four games after that, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said reports from Rochester indicate he’s been the Amerks’ best forward.
“I’d like to see him use his skill and ability with the puck,” Bylsma said. “Hope to give him some opportunity to do that. Not just be a checker or a fourth-line guy, but put him in a spot where he can have his skin and ability … be a factor in the game.
As for Girgensons, he suffered an upper-body injury during Friday night’s 4-1 loss to the Boston Bruins.
“He’s feeling a lot better today, but day to day at this point,” said Bylsma, who said Girgensons will not be placed on injured reserve.
Forward Evander Kane, meanwhile, is fine after limping off late in Friday’s loss and will play against the Capitals. Bylsma said defenseman Mark Pysyk will make his return to the lineup but declined to say which blueliner will be scratched.