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Sabres will be tested by life without Ryan O’Reilly

Sam Reinhart, more than anyone, has seen what Ryan O’Reilly means to the Sabres. O’Reilly is the team’s backbone, the guy who performs during games, spearheads the effort in practice and commands attention in the dressing room.

With the news that O’Reilly has a foot injury that will force him to miss up to a month, Reinhart said he couldn’t even put into words what the loss meant to a team that – pardon the pun – had just begun to gain its footing.

“Injuries are going to happen,” Reinhart said Sunday, “but when it’s someone like that who’s obviously a key part of this team in every situation, it’s tough to go through.

“He plays every situation. He’s a leader. He holds himself and others accountable, which is huge. Just his presence is a big thing for this team. It’s missed, for sure.”

The Sabres could have used O’Reilly during a 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, but that goes without saying. The numbers speak for themselves:

• O’Reilly leads the Sabres with 49 points and 32 assists, and he’s tied for second with 17 goals. His point total ranks 18th in the NHL.

• He leads all NHL forwards in average ice time (21:51) and paces the Sabres in power-play time (3:15 per game). He is fourth in penalty killing (2:06).

• The center leads the league in faceoff wins (848) and draws taken (1,489). His faceoff percentage of 57 percent is tied for eighth in the NHL.

“He’s your No. 1 guy, and that’s something you can’t replace,” coach Dan Bylsma said in First Niagara Center.

Alas, the Sabres will have to replace O’Reilly.

Reinhart took his spot as center on the top line. Johan Larsson assumed O’Reilly’s role as the shutdown center. They weren’t bad, but they had their struggles.

Larsson kept Penguins star Sidney Crosby to just one secondary assist, but the Sabres center still finished the afternoon with a minus-2 rating.

“I want to be better. I can’t let those goals go in,” Larsson said. “It’s a challenge for everyone else to step up and play good. It was not good today.”

The line of Reinhart, left wing Evander Kane and recalled right wing Justin Bailey managed just five shots. Reinhart went 4 of 11 on faceoffs as the Sabres won only 42 percent without O’Reilly.

“You need a big draw, he’s the guy that’s stepping over the boards,” Bylsma said. “That’s something we’re going to miss and something we have to replace. You see the importance of that in the game.”

Reinhart, drafted as a center, has excelled as O’Reilly’s right winger and right-hand man. The rookie shadows the 25-year-old, which has allowed Reinhart to blossom with 18 goals. The 20-year-old knows the game will be different without O’Reilly.

“I feel with someone like him in the lineup I’m a better player,” Reinhart said. “No matter where I’m put I’m going to try to do the same things out there and create.”

Reinhart said his biggest adjustment at center will be making plays and preventing them.

Exhibit A came midway through the second period when Reinhart turned up ice, gave the puck to Olli Maatta and watched the Penguins defenseman ring a shot off the crossbar.

“At center, when you get the puck you have more time than you think sometimes to make plays,” Reinhart said. “There’s definitely a lot more opportunity to turn the puck over at center. That’s a big part that I need to clean up. I feel I’m getting better at that as well, but that’s probably the biggest thing and toughest.”

O’Reilly’s absence boosted the ice time of centers Jack Eichel and Larsson. Eichel skated 21:11 against the Penguins, well above his average of 18:44. Larsson, who averaged 14:02, played 15:36.

The opportunities will continue to be there with O’Reilly potentially missing four of the remaining seven weeks.

“It’s a huge loss for us,” goaltender Robin Lehner said. “He’s a world-class player and leader in this room. It’s an opportunity for other guys to step up and take over his ice time and show what they can do. Every team loses guys. It’s just going to be a great opportunity for someone else.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com

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