Snap out of it, boys. You get the sobering feeling that will be the message the Buffalo Sabres will hear a lot in the coming days.
As bring-you-to-your-knees shots go, the word that Ryan O’Reilly is out of the lineup for the next 3-4 weeks is the biggest piece of bad news this club has been given this year.
The Sabres played on adrenaline in the first period Sunday afternoon, outskating the Pittsburgh Penguins even though they left the ice in a 1-1 tie. They spent the last 40 minutes looking like a team in complete shellshock.
The 4-3 final score was deceiving. It took until the final 22 seconds for the Sabres to be within a goal. It probably should have been no surprise.
Dan Bylsma said Saturday he thought O’Reilly was probable for the game, as he missed practice for what the coach termed a maintenance day. Players arrived at First Niagara Center on Sunday morning and that’s when they got the bad news: Their lone All-Star’s broken foot is in a boot and he’s down for 3-4 weeks.
O’Reilly has become the glue guy of this team, on the ice and in the locker room. His practice work ethic has become legendary, with his young teammates following his lead and spending plenty of post-workout time honing their game. And keep in mind he likely finished Friday’s win in Columbus playing on the injury. Skates often act as casts, and a foot blows up only once the skate is removed.
“He’s our No. 1 center and that’s a huge hole to fill,” said Evander Kane, a regular on O’Reilly’s wing. “We’re going to have to make do for now. It’s a time for other guys to step up as we move on. He’s such a big part of our team and that position is so important. He plays in all situations and now you have to try to fill that void.”
O’Reilly’s jack-of-all-trades manner is reflected in the numbers. He entered the weekend averaging 21 minutes and 51 seconds per game of ice time – the most of any NHL forward. He’s taken a league-high 1,489 faceoffs, a figure that’s more than 42 percent of every draw in every Sabres game this season.
The only time O’Reilly has played under 19 minutes in game was in October, in a 7-2 loss to Montreal in which Bylsma pulled back on him only because the Sabres had a game the next night. Since Christmas, he’s been under 20 minutes just once, and that was when he played 19:38 Tuesday at Ottawa.
Bylsma saw the spooked eyes from his players in the second period Sunday. The Sabres made so many turnovers, it was an affront to your average dessert table.
The injury really leaves Buffalo thin on experience down the middle. Jack Eichel is a 19-year-old rookie. Sam Reinhart has played wing most of the time and seemed jittery with the puck at center Sunday. Johan Larsson has some grit and had a good first period before slipping back into the funk that enveloped the rest of his team.
Bylsma doesn’t want to take Zemgus Girgensons off Eichel’s wing because that duo has been strong, but he might have to put the Latvian back at center to help things defensively.
“We needed someone to step over the boards and take control of the game in that second period,” Bylsma said. “That’s got to be someone on the ice right now. It’s got to be Jack, it’s got to be ‘Lars’ stepping over the board. It’s got to be someone currently on our team doing that.”
The Sabres were outclassed in the second period and outshot, 16-6. They simply didn’t manage the game well coming out of the first intermission against a Pittsburgh team playing on consecutive days.
“We didn’t get much of a forecheck or much cycle time in their zone, even in the first period,” Kane said. “Then we were really flat in the second. … There were breakdowns, more in the neutral zone and offensive zone. We made it too easy on their ‘D.’ ”
“That’s hurt us all year long, not getting it for 60 minutes,” added captain Brian Gionta. “We have it in spurts where we play well and keep ourselves in games but it’s not good enough. To get wins and points, you need to have it for 60 minutes. Not responsible enough with the puck. Against a team like that, it’s going to hurt you.”
Injuries come off as an excuse, even with the Sabres third in the NHL in man games lost. But you can easily make the case Buffalo hasn’t had its planned roster the entire season.
Zach Bogosian got hurt in training camp and was out until mid-November. Robin Lehner was hurt on opening night and didn’t resurface until January. Tyler Ennis hasn’t been seen since since three days after Christmas. Kane, Girgensons, Mark Pysyk and Nicolas Deslauriers have all missed significant time. And now O’Reilly exits, with the hope that he’ll be back before the calendar hits April.
The trends have been upward for this club, which entered Sunday having collected 21 of the previous 36 possible points. But things are ominous now with a West Coast trip starting Wednesday in Anaheim. O’Reilly won’t be there. Gionta and fellow veterans like Josh Gorges and David Legwand become even more important in the room now at the tough times, with the team missing a key cog and the final days prior to the trade deadline at hand.
“He’s such a big part of your leadership group,” Gionta said of O’Reilly. “It’s a blow. Guys like me, Josh, ‘Leggy’ have to really fill that void.”
“We’ve been playing better hockey of late but this was a game with a lot of lax play and it didn’t seem we had the urgency we needed after that first period,” Kane said. “It’s a 1-1 game and we needed to fight to take the lead and we did the opposite of that. You can’t slip into that, especially going out West against those teams.”