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Finally healthy again, Sabres' blue-liners ready to defend

RALEIGH, N.C. – When Dan Bylsma filled out the Sabres’ lineup card Saturday night, the coach wrote the names of Buffalo’s top six defensemen.

It felt good.

“I’d like to get them out there and playing a number of games,” Bylsma said in PNC Arena. “We haven’t had it since the start of the season.”

Indeed, Buffalo had dressed its desired defense corps just eight times before facing the Carolina Hurricanes. Dmitry Kulikov missed the season opener, then the six pack was together until Zach Bogosian suffered a sprained knee ligament during the ninth game. Since Nov. 1, it’s been a mix of regulars and call-ups.

While it wasn’t always pretty, the defensemen joined the goaltenders in allowing the 10th-fewest goals at 2.55 per game. With everyone back, Buffalo hopes to get that number even lower.

The Sabres got off to a solid start Saturday. Though they suffered a 2-1 shootout loss, the defensemen helped limit the Hurricanes to a paltry 16 shots during regulation.

“Having a healthy back end for the first time this year is nice,” defenseman Cody Franson said. “Unfortunately we came up a point shy, but there’s a couple good things we can take away from it.”

Bogosian was the latest regular to return, coming back after a 20-game absence. He skated with Kulikov. Jake McCabe was paired with Rasmus Ristolainen. Josh Gorges partnered with Cody Franson.

When the Sabres’ brass penciled in the pairs during the offseason, the groups looked just like they did Saturday.

“It’s huge,” Gorges said. “It is great to know that you have the six guys that you started the year with healthy and ready to go. That’s one part of it. Now we have to go out there and make it count.”

The minutes played out as they should. Ristolainen led the way with 25:18 of ice time. Kulikov skated 23:07. McCabe was next at 21:40, followed by Bogosian (21:17), Gorges (16:51) and Franson (16:47).

“We have a pretty good back end when we’re all healthy and we’re all playing the way we can,” Bogosian said.

As expected from a unit that hasn’t been together much, there were a few moments of disarray. The Hurricanes missed a couple of open looks, but even those chances wouldn’t have boosted their shot total by much.

“Anytime you give up 20 or less, you’re doing a pretty darn good job on the defensive side of it,” Bylsma said.

Carolina’s only goal in regulation was a tough bounce for Buffalo. Brett Pesce lofted the puck from his own end to the Sabres’ zone – Bylsma termed it a “punt” – and Bogosian chased it along with Jay McClement. Neither could corral it, and Joakim Nordstrom pounced to open the scoring.

“I was initially just trying to get back there and just get a stick on it,” Bogosian said. “Unfortunately, I whacked it off his stick right to the other guy. It’s just an unlucky, unfortunate bounce.”

Bounces will happen. The Sabres hope they get a long stretch of having their top defensemen around to take care of them. They'll get their second game in a row Tuesday in Florida.

“The guys that stepped in for the injured guys did a real good job,” Bogosian said. “It’s not an easy thing to do, but I thought they handled it very well. It’s good to see everyone back healthy now, though.”



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