TORONTO – When the Buffalo Sabres approached their marquee game of the season on New Year's Day, a dreaded word had begun accompanying Sam Reinhart.
The No. 2 overall pick in 2014 was producing next to nothing. He had five goals, six assists and 11 points in 38 games. He was mired in a slump of no goals and one assist in 16 games. His performance matched the numbers.
Worse yet, his draftmates were starting to pull away. Fellow first-rounders David Pastrnak of Boston, Leon Draisaitl of Edmonton, Dylan Larkin of Detroit and Nikolaj Ehlers of Winnipeg were better scorers and point-producers. So was fourth-rounder Viktor Arvidsson of Nashville.
It looked like Buffalo had whiffed.
Then Reinhart scored in the Winter Classic. Then he scored the next game. Since then, he's become the Sabres' most consistent offensive player.
In other words, he's become what he expected to be – and what people expected him to be.
"I'm just trying to produce every night," Reinhart said after scoring in Monday's 5-2 loss to Toronto. "That's what I've got to be for this team. That's my mindset, that I need to produce on a nightly basis and be consistent."
Reinhart's goal was his 24th of the season, eclipsing the career high of 23 he set as a rookie in 2015-16. It seemed impossible he would top that as the calendar got ready to flip, when he was stuck on five goals for more than a month.
"I wasn't really thinking about anything," he said of that time. "I was just trying to get back to my game, the game that I know I can play."
The game he can play features 19 goals and 37 points in the last 41 games – exactly half a season. That would be 38 goals and 74 points in 82 games if Reinhart's first half mirrored his second half.
The 22-year-old plans on being a full-year guy next season.
"This is the way I feel I can play," Reinhart said in Air Canada Centre. "It's not like it's five games in a row. This has been consistent."
The steady pace has pulled Reinhart back among the leaders of his draft class. He has 64 goals and 138 points in 246 games. He's tied for sixth in goals per game (0.26) and ninth in points per game (0.56). His 48 power-play points trail only the 52 put up by Pastrnak.
"I'm not comparing myself to anyone else," Reinhart said. "I'm just trying to help out this team on a nightly basis."
The hockey IQ that vaulted Reinhart ahead of everyone but defenseman Aaron Ekblad in 2014 shows up from time to time in Reinhart's assists. The goals continue to be a product of hand-eye coordination.
Reinhart set his single-season high Monday by parking himself at the top of the crease and tipping home Rasmus Ristolainen's waist-high point shot.
"That's where a lot of the goals are going to be scored," Sabres goaltender Chad Johnson said, "and Sam has obviously done a really good job this year of working on that in practice, tipping in pucks and getting in the goalie's way. He's been rewarded in getting more goals."
He's been rewarded with a career high in goals.
"On the power play, he's very deadly in front of the net," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "He's getting pieces of pucks, and he's making plays down low. He's been very consistent in his determination to get to the net and in the puck battles.
"It's a credit to him that he's put this season together for himself after having a tough start."
The second half has certainly given Reinhart more confidence, and it will boost his bottom line. His entry-level deal has three games left, and the pending restricted free agent will get a new contract this summer.
His agent will no doubt point to the second half of the year instead of the first.
"When it's going well for you, you kind of have that confidence," Reinhart said. "You kind of walk around with a little bit more. It's definitely nicer coming in every day and more fun, for sure.
"It means more to me to be able to help this team, and hopefully I can keep building off this."
Story topics: Sam Reinhart