A week later than most everyone else on the Buffalo Sabres, Johan Larsson got to play in his personal season opener Thursday night in KeyBank Center.
After taking a shot to the leg in the Sept. 26 exhibition game in Pittsburgh, Larsson felt well enough to return to the lineup for the Sabres' game against the Colorado Avalanche.
The twist was that Larsson, mostly a center since joining the Sabres in 2013, spent the game on left wing to provide some sheltering for rookie Casey Mittelstadt. Newcomer Remi Elie was a healthy scratch so Larsson could return.
"He's been out for over two weeks now, worked his way back in and we want to get him a game," coach Phil Housley said of Larsson. "He can help out on the faceoffs, he can help out on the penalty kill. He's playing with Casey and Tage Thompson, which will bring some stability to that line."
"It's always tough to sit out," Larsson said. "… I'm just going to try to come in and help the team again. I can play both spots. I'm comfortable with both."
Mittelstadt, being brought along slowly in his first full NHL season, welcomed the chance to play with Larsson.
"It's huge for me," Mittelstadt said. "He's played center and wing in his career and it definitely helps me a lot. Coming back (into the defensive zone) sometimes, if he's back first he can go low and I can cover his spot on the wing or vice versa. He's a good faceoff guy too so that helps me as well."
The line had the Sabres' best scoring chance in the first seven minutes of the game as Mittelstadt's shot was stopped by Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov and Larsson, cruising behind the goal line, just failed to tuck the rebound behind the goalie and into the net.
Two pieces of the Sabres' 2015 trade with Colorado for Ryan O'Reilly remain in the Colorado lineup.
J.T. Compher, who never played a game for the Sabres, entered the game with two goals thus far while centering the fourth line. Defenseman Nikita Zadorov, who played 67 games in Buffalo, had no points and a minus-3 rating on defense. He was averaging 14:53 per game while playing on the third pair with Mark Barberio.
Mittelstadt and fellow Sabres rookie Rasmus Dahlin joined veteran Marco Scandella in spending part of Wednesday at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center visiting Courage of Carly patients.
"It's a tough time for them to go through," Mittelstadt said. "Us going to talk to them even for a minute or two is a good two minutes for them. To see them smile is definitely cool. To brighten their day for two minutes is definitely important.
"It was cool to see those guys smile, jump around, have some fun with them, try to keep their day a little lighter and a little brighter."
— Roswell Park (@RoswellPark) October 10, 2018
The Avalanche hit town in the midst of a bizarre stretch to the schedule. They played Tuesday in Columbus, then were headed back to Denver after meeting the Sabres for a game Saturday night against Calgary. That game is on the schedule to accommodate "Hockey Night in Canada."
After that, it's right back to the East Coast for another roadie that starts Tuesday in New York and includes stops in New Jersey, Carolina and Philadelphia.
“It’s not the ideal situation, right?,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said here Thursday morning. “We’re trying to break it out. We’re not looking at it like six of seven on the road. It’s a two-game swing. Being rested helps. We’ve kept our practices a little bit shorter.”
The Avalanche and New Jersey Devils both made the playoffs last year after finishing last in their conferences the year before. It's the path the Sabres are hoping to take this season and it's not an altogether unusual one.
The Devils and Avs became the 27th and 28th teams since conferences were introduced in 1974 that did the last-place-to-playoffs trick. It's happened nine times since the 2005 lockout — and four straight last-place teams have done it.
In addition to the 2017-18 Devils and Avalanche, the 2016-17 Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers both went to the playoffs after finishing last in their conferences in 2016.