Furious after Wednesday's 4-1 loss to Arizona, Phil Housley's mood was no softer when the Buffalo Sabres returned to KeyBank Center for practice Thursday morning. Early in the workout, associate coach Davis Payne loudly chastised players for coasting through a drill. A few minutes later, Housley had seen enough.
Briefly stopping a drill, Housley excoriated the group by yelling, "Get on your toes and start ... working." And that, for the record, is an edited version of the coach's direction.
"I just thought we weren't doing what I told them to do, which was a simple execution play of attacking with wide speed and a middle-lane drive," Housley said after the workout ended. "So I just tried to get their attention and I thought the execution from that point was good."
Housley lit up his team after the game and was still fuming when he met the media a few minutes later, calling the loss "unacceptable" in what easily rates as the most fury reporters have seen this season from the first-year coach. The word in the dressing room Thursday was that was the message Housley conveyed during a video meeting prior to practice.
"He wants to get his message out and it's totally understandable," veteran winger Jason Pominville said after practice. "We've got to do our thing and go out there and work. If they feel we're not going hard enough, they've got to make sure they push those buttons and they did today. You saw the pace go up as soon as they did that."
Housley was particularly agitated by the fact the Sabres were outmanned by an Arizona team that was languishing at the bottom of the standings in the same neighborhood as Buffalo is. In recent weeks, the Sabres have posted wins over Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto and Chicago, took Vegas to a shootout and battled Stanley Cup favorite Nashville hard for 55 minutes before eventually losing, 4-0.
"Maybe it's the way we prepare for teams that are elite teams in the league," Pominville theorized. "We know we have to show up and if we don't, we know it's not going to go our way. For some reason, we take the foot off the gas against teams that are kind of where we are in the standings."
Housley hopes his team learned a lesson from it heading into Friday's visit by Montreal.
"You look at the body of work in our last 20 games I think we've moved in a good direction," said Housley, whose club is 9-9-2 in that stretch. "But it reminds us you have to come prepared to play whether you're playing the best team in the league or you're playing one of the lower teams in the league. It's tough to win in this league and you have to have the same mindset. We didn't do what it was going to take to win in yesterday's game. I hope they're angry. I hope they're upset."
Linus Ullmark will get his third start of the season in Friday's game and Robin Lehner, who has sat the last three games with bumps and bruises, will be the backup. Chad Johnson will sit this one out after taking a shot to the side of the head in Wednesday's loss.
Johnson was stunned by the drive during a first-period penalty kill but remained in the game. He skated off the ice during a stoppage about six minutes into the second period and did not return.
"We just held him off. It's day to day. He's a little banged up," Housley said. "He hasn't been diagnosed with a concussion but let's just err on the side of caution."
Zemgus Girgensons returned to practice Thursday, playing with Jack Eichel and Jason Pominville, and should be back in the lineup Friday. Rasmus Ristolainen and Marco Scandella took maintenance days and should play as well. Benoit Pouliot was the odd man out at practice and could sit as a healthy scratch.
When they did line rushes, Girgensons and Pominville were with Eichel. So it's Girgensons-Eichel-Pominville, Wilson-ROR-Reinhart, Bailey-ERod-Baptiste (together again), Nolan-Larsson-Okposo. #Sabres
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) March 22, 2018
The Sabres have returned forward Seth Griffith to Rochester. The Amerks are in the stretch drive of their season and can clinch a playoff berth as early as this week's set of back-to-back home games. They host Binghamton Friday and Springfield on Saturday in Blue Cross Arena.
Griffith has two goals and one assist in 21 games with the Sabres, but has been a major contributor in Rochester with 13 goals, 21 assists and 34 points in 36 games.
The Amerks can clinch a berth by getting three out of four points this weekend or if Laval gets only one point out of its four this weekend. Rochester is in third place in the AHL North, nine points behind Syracuse and four points ahead of Utica. The Amerks are 20 points ahead of Laval.
Center Vasili Glotov, a seventh-round pick in 2016 who became popular with fans and media at the Sabres' last two summer development camps, has signed an amateur tryout contract with the Cincinnati Cyclones, Buffalo's ECHL affiliate. Glotov, 20, had 29 goals and 14 assists in 64 games this season for Shawinigan in the Quebec League.