MONTREAL — Defenseman Nathan Beaulieu was in the Buffalo Sabres' lineup for just the second time in eight games Thursday night and it was no coincidence.
Coach Phil Housley said after practice Wednesday that Beaulieu's attitude the last couple weeks as an accidental healthy scratch has been excellent. And the coach was playing an obvious hunch as well: As a former first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens, the theory was that Beaulieu would be primed to go against the Habs in the teams' meeting at Bell Centre.
"It's good. I don't have to look too far for motivation," Beaulieu joked after the morning skate. "I'm really excited and looking forward to the challenge."
Beaulieu was struck in the midsection, believed to be a shot to the elbow, during the Sabres' game Oct. 18 in San Jose and missed a couple of games with the injury. But he's been ready to go since then and simply hasn't been able to crack the lineup. His absence started with the Oct. 25 victory over the Canadiens in KeyBank Center.
"The biggest thing I can do is stay ready and get better," he said. "In this league you get the opportunity on the ice every day. I just tried to make the best of it, not try to stress out too much about it. I liked where my game was at."
"I think it's time. I think he's been working really hard," Housley said Wednesday. "He's had a great attitude the last week. He's come to work, trying to get better. We're giving him an opportunity coming to Montreal but I just think his attitude and work level have risen the last week and that's really why he's getting an opportunity."
Beaulieu's lone game in this stretch was the Oct. 30 overtime loss to Calgary and he said it was a difficult adjustment sliding back into the lineup. He played 14 minutes that night, collecting three shots on goal.
"The biggest thing for me was just to stay ready in practice," he said. "I missed almost two weeks without playing and jumping into a game was difficult. I ramped up my practices a lot more, hit the gym a little more and I feel really good right now.''
Beaulieu said it was strange to see the Habs come to Buffalo without Max Pacioretty. Their longtime captain will be making his much-anticipated return to Montreal with the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday after being traded in early September.
"Extremely weird," Beaulieu said of Pacioretty's absence. "They've got a lot of new faces over there. Half their team I didn't play with when I was here. They remodeled their team and they're playing good hockey right now. Max is a huge loss for them but guys have stepped up over there."
Beaulieu's return to the lineup saw him paired with Sabres rookie Rasmus Dahlin, who is making the rounds of partners on the Buffalo defense.
"He's an exceptional player and I like how great of a kid he is," said Beaulieu, the fourth Buffalo blueliner to get a stint with Dahlin. "He's very mature for his age. He works hard and I try to stay out there after practice with him. He's always one of the last guys off the ice, which is nice to see as a 18-year-old. It's great for him."
The Sabres used the same 12 forwards who have played in recent games but flipped the positions of Evan Rodrigues and Vladimir Sobotka, putting Rodrigues back in the center slot he opened the season at with Zemgus Girgensons and Jason Pominville.
"Just to get them both going," Housley said. "I thought 'Roger' did terrific job when he was playing with Z and Pominville on the fourth line. Good position, good in the defensive zone on the breakouts, good outlet passes. I think he's got a lot of speed so we want him to try to attack the game in the middle off the ice."
The Sabres entered the game with a positive goal differential at 5-on-5 (28-25), something they have not accomplished for a whole season since the 2013 lockout. … Sabres winger Conor Sheary played in his 200th NHL game. Sheary's goal in Saturday's romp past Ottawa was his 100th career NHL point. ... Thursday was the 17th anniversary of what ranks as one of the easiest shutouts in Sabres history. On Nov. 8, 2001, current Buffalo broadcaster Martin Biron needed to make only 16 saves as the Sabres buried the Atlanta Thrashers, 8-0. Biron had 18 of his 28 career shutouts with Buffalo, third on the franchise's all-time list behind Dominik Hasek (55) and Ryan Miller (28).