Zemgus Girgensons hasn’t created much offense this season but some things clicked for a few games when he was with Jack Eichel. The Buffalo Sabres are expected to go back to that combination when they play the New York Rangers on Monday in Madison Square Garden.
Girgensons, who has missed the last four games with a lower-body injury, skated fully at practice Sunday in HarborCenter and declared himself ready to go. He skated at right wing on a line centered by Eichel with uber-slumping Matt Moulson on the opposite side.
Girgensons had two points and nine shots on goal in a three-game span playing with Eichel in late December, including back-to-back games against league-leading Washington. Eichel had 16 shots on goal in the same stretch and Brian Gionta added a goal while playing in the third spot.
“I thought they were generating quite a bit of offense, scored some goals,” Bylsma said. “Zemgus was generating maybe more offense than he had and that’s what we hope putting them back together.”
“Every day you’re together with a guy, you get to know him better on and off the ice,” Girgensons said of Eichel. “It’s awesome. He’s an amazing player. Watching him is fun but playing with him is even more fun. You get more ‘o-zone’ time if you’re playing with him, so that’s always a good thing.”
Eichel could certainly use a boost. Even though his 14 goals entered Sunday third among NHL rookies, the Sabres’ phenom has scored in just three of his last 21 games (he has five goals in that stretch).
“He’s a key player for us who brings a lot to the table so it will be great to have him back,” Eichel said of Girgensons. “He plays a real straight-ahead game and you know what to expect. I really enjoy playing with him. We were able to connect a little bit, get some chemistry going. Hopefully, he hits the ground running.”
Girgensons has just three goals and five assists in 40 games, a far cry from the 15 goals and 30 points he totaled in just 61 games last year.
“I’ve never really been down on my confidence,” Girgensons said. “It’s been tough so far with the points but my game overall has been pretty good. I can create space for Jack. I can get on the forecheck and win some battles so it will be a little bit easier for him to get pucks to the net.”
Due to injuries and ineffectiveness throughout the lineup, a steady linemate for Eichel has been a season-long struggle.
“We’re all floating around,” Eichel said. “I don’t think anyone has really had the same linemates all year. It’s part of the game. Injuries will happen. It’s been important for us to battle through that, not let it affect us mentally or on the ice.”
Perhaps easier said than done. Eichel has had just one shot on goal in three of his last four outings, and was largely invisible for much of Friday’s 3-0 loss to Detroit here.
“In this last stretch of games, I’ve tried to make some plays and do some other things,” Eichel said. “I certainly didn’t think the Detroit game was my best, but it’s why you play 82 of them.”
The top line at practice Sunday had Ryan O’Reilly centering Evander Kane and Jamie McGinn. The third line stayed intact with Johan Larsson between Marcus Foligno and Gionta. Tim Schaller and David Legwand remained together on the fourth line with Cal O’Reilly and Phil Varone. It’s expected that either Cal O’Reilly or Varone will be returned to Rochester with Girgensons ready to go.
Defenseman Josh Gorges, who has missed two of the last three games, skated Sunday and will go on the trip. Bylsma said he hasn’t decided if he will play. Nicolas Deslauriers (foot) skated in a non-contact role Sunday, joining the team for the first time in three weeks.
The Sabres went 0-3 against the Rangers last season and have dropped seven straight against them. They have not gone winless in eight straight against New York since going 0-10-2 in the first 12 meetings in their history from 1970-1972.
The Rangers used Henrik Lundqvist in goal Sunday in Ottawa and coach Alain Vigneault declined to say if the starter would go back-to-back in Monday’s game, so the Sabres could be looking at a matchup with backup Antti Raanta.
Bylsma did not reveal his goaltenders for the trip, but the Sabres are likely to use Chad Johnson in New York and Robin Lehner on Tuesday in Ottawa in what would be his first game against his old team in the Canadian capital. Lehner got the start against the Senators in the season opener here on Oct. 8 and that was the night he suffered the high ankle sprain in the second period that sidelined him for more than three months.
“I haven’t spoken to Robin yet about playing in Ottawa,” said a smiling Bylsma. “But I know he wanted to play in Game One of the year when we played Ottawa at home.”