Forget about scoring goals. Matt Moulson wasn't even getting many opportunities last year during the worst season of his NHL career. It's one thing to struggle on the stat sheet, and it's another thing entirely to be completely invisible on the ice.
Banished down the lineup by Buffalo Sabres coach Dan Bylsma and called out for his work habits by General Manager Tim Murray, Moulson told anyone who asked during training camp he had a strong summer and was moving on from last year. Observers greeted the words with skepticism after two straight sub-par seasons by the former 30-goal scorer.
So far, however, Moulson has been right.
Moulson scored power-play goals in each of the Sabres' first two games. And even though he didn't connect in the final two games of Buffalo's Western Canada road trip, Moulson's work near the net was very noticeable.
"For me, it's trying to get better every day and that comes with hard work, making sure I'm working on the right things," Moulson said after Thursday's 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks in Rogers Arena. "I feel like I definitely have an extra jump, an extra gear compared to last year."
Moulson had four shots on goal in the game and was strong on the puck down low in several sequences while playing on a line with Tyler Ennis and Zemgus Girgensons. Moulson's best chance came in the second period, when Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom stopped him from in tight and stuffed him again on his rebound. A Moulson tip off a Girgensons feed was stopped in the third period.
"It comes from the work, having an extra spurt here and there to get to pucks," he said. "It's how I want to play, getting a lot of chances. If you do that, you're likely to be more successful."
"I know he has scored already this year but I think this was his strongest game," Bylsma said. "Their line was the line in the first period on the forecheck digging out pucks and Matt was physical and around the net. To me, that's Matt's best game for us this year."
Moulson had just eight goals in 81 games last year and had only 111 shots on goal for the season, not even 1.4 per game. He already has 11 shots on goal in four games this year, nearly three per contest.
Moulson was one of three Sabres who combined for 14 shots in a game in which Buffalo came up empty despite outshooting the Canucks, 27-20. Kyle Okposo led the way with six, all in the first two periods, while Moulson and Ryan O'Reilly had four apiece.
"I thought we were maybe a little sloppy to come out at the beginning of the game but we started to really get going in the second period," said Moulson, referring to Buffalo's 14-10 advantage in shots in the middle period. "We were in on the forecheck, we were getting chances, doing a good job of supporting each other. In the end, the frustrating thing is they capitalized on the power play and we didn't."
Daniel Sedin's power-play goal with 10:50 left proved to be decisive, as Vancouver held on to become the NHL's only 4-0 team. The Sabres, meanwhile, were 0 for 5 on the power play and finished their road trip 1-1-1.
Moulson career-low eight goals prompted talk of a buyout the Sabres opted not to use. At age 32, this is a big season for him because the buyout option still remains for the Sabres or his contract could be exposed for the new Las Vegas franchise in the expansion draft next June. He's simply trying to re-establish his value as a regular in the Buffalo attack.
"That's from doing a lot of work on my skating in the offseason and all my off-ice stuff," he said. "It's something you have to pay attention to each day and keep improving. Get to where you want your game to be and keep working to make it better and I'm seeing results."
The Sabres took a red-eye home immediately after the game in Vancouver and were off Friday. They will also take Saturday off and return to practice on Sunday. Their next game is Tuesday in Philadelphia.
Forwards Nicholas Baptiste and Hudson Fasching and defenseman Casey Nelson were sent to Rochester Thursday so they can play with the Amerks this weekend. Fasching has been a healthy scratch the last two games while Nelson sat out all three games on the road trip. Baptiste scored the Sabres' lone goal, his first in the NHL in Vancouver.
The Amerks hosted Toronto Friday and play Saturday at Binghamton. Nelson and one of the forwards are likely to rejoin the Sabres prior to the game in Philadelphia.