SUNRISE, Fla. – The Buffalo Sabres couldn't wait to see their new-look defense corps prior to the season. Due to a barrage of injuries and ineffective play, the pairings weren't as competent as anyone hoped.
Coach Phil Housley feels he's found a solid one.
Casey Nelson and Victor Antipin formed the Sabres' second pairing Friday night against Florida, the third straight time they shared the blue line. The first two were victories over Boston and Tampa Bay, games in which Buffalo held potent offenses to just one goal each.
"They've been doing a really good job since they've been put together," Housley said in BB&T Center. "They've played against some really good competition. The better teams that we're facing here have good second and third lines, so they've risen to the challenge."
They've enjoyed the challenge.
"It's been going great," Nelson said. "I think we both move the puck pretty well, help each other out."
Each member of the duo has speed and passing ability, which allows them to find breakouts in the defensive zone and join offensive rushes.
"I really like their puck movement," Housley said. "I like the way they're getting up the ice and into the play."
The players clearly like the opportunity they're getting. Nelson played his 21st straight game since being recalled from Rochester. Antipin, who sat out 16 of 18 games in December and January, has reversed those numbers. He played for the 16th time in 18 games.
"My game has improved," Antipin said. "I'm feeling it's good. I have more patience."
Housley has noticed.
"I really like what I've seen from Victor lately," the coach said. "He's in control. His defense is really good. He's got a good stick and closes quick on guys.
"It just feels he's been playing with a lot more confidence."
Antipin, a Kazakhstan native who continues to work on his English, relies heavily on video for his lessons. They seem to be sinking in.
"He's got a lot of ability," Nelson said. "He can do many things, is a very smart player. I think we're working better and better together."
The Sabres were missing an offensive catalyst. Center Evan Rodrigues, who has been playing well in an expanded role with Jack Eichel injured, sat because of an upper-body injury.
Though Housley did not announce how Rodrigues was injured, the center took a hard hit early in the third period of Wednesday's 2-1 overtime victory in Tampa Bay. He remained in the game and scored the tying goal. His ribs were wrapped in the dressing room following the game.
"I just know that he woke up Thursday with an upper-body soreness, so we're just being cautious with it," Housley said. "He got banged up. He's got a little upper-body injury. It's more of a day-to-day situation with him."
Rodrigues has four goals and nine points in his past 11 games.
Kyle Okposo wore an extra piece of equipment. He had a medical bracelet on his wrist, allowing him to visit his wife and newborn daughter in the hospital once he gets back to Buffalo.
The Okposos welcomed their third child Tuesday, and the right winger missed the game against Tampa Bay. He flew to Florida on Thursday.
"I came here, skated, took a nap and then slept a lot," he said. "Everything went well. Long labor, but got it done. Really happy, just proud."
Zemgus Girgensons alternated between center and wing during his first five seasons in the organization. He played in the middle for one of the few times under Housley because of Rodrigues' absence. When Girgensons was asked about the switch in the dressing room, Sam Reinhart overheard the query.
"I've been there!" shouted Reinhart, who has flip-flopped positions throughout his career.