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Sabres Notebook: Defensemen finally contributing to offense

When an ill-timed rush by a Buffalo Sabres defenseman leads to a scoring chance the other way, assistant coach Steve Smith will occasionally lean over from his spot on the bench afterward to ask why the player chose to join the play.

Smith's willing to live with such mistakes, but he won't tolerate his group being passive. After all, the Sabres did not get a goal from a defenseman through 27 games last season and the 13 who played in at least one game combined for only 19 goals, only two more than 2016-17.

The results have been remarkable this season. Entering Wednesday's game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Buffalo defensemen had combined for 12 goals, at least one from the seven who have played and five had two goals.

"In my mind, I kind of liken it to a game of cards," Smith said. "If you’re playing poker, if you have a pair of aces, you go for it. If you have a three and a two, you stay back. You try and select your opportunities wisely and try to put yourself in position for success. Even the times where you set yourself up for success, it’s not always going to work out in your favor, but at least you’ve played the odds moving up the ice."

The group can't take all the blame for last season's shortcomings. The Sabres were stuck in their own zone for long stretches because their forwards did a poor job keeping the puck in the offensive zone.

After finishing last in scoring, coach Phil Housley emphasized the need for all five players on the ice to be involved at even strength. After one full season in the system, the addition of an ultra-talented 18-year-old, and a roster overhaul, the defensemen are making Housley's vision a reality.

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Perhaps no goal this season powerfully illustrated the change more than Jake McCabe's in the first period Saturday. As McCabe left the blue line to skate toward the net, Rasmus Dahlin collected a pass from Kyle Okposo, skated through the right circle and passed through a crowd of players to McCabe, who one-timed the puck past Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk.

Dahlin tied the score in the second period when he rushed toward the net to poke a rebound in for his second goal of the season. Two nights later, Casey Nelson cut the deficit in Pittsburgh to one with his slap shot from the right point.

"I like the body of work right now," Housley said. "There’s a lot of things I’d like to change as well, but for the most part our 'D' are getting active, whether it’s off the rush or joining it. In the offensive zone, obviously they’ve made some really good reads and being in open areas. For the most part, that part of our game is really good."

Entering Wednesday's game, the Sabres' seven defensemen had also combined for 34 assists. Their forwards do deserve some of the credit. Buffalo's been better in its own zone this season, and the additions of Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson have improved the team's speed.

The defensemen have also made the forwards' jobs easier.

"They’ve been playing well," Skinner said. "That’s the way you have to play if you want to be successful in this league. You have to have D men that are going to be involved offensively. It’s too hard to score if only the forwards are involved. It’s been good. Hopefully they can keep it up."

Bogosian is healthy after appearing in only 19 games last season, and Dahlin, chosen first overall in June, is already adept enough to quarterback the Sabres' power play and was arguably the team's best player Saturday in Minnesota.

"We’re spending our energy in the right way and picking our spots when the time is right," McCabe said. "Forwards are finding us as well. There are some things we can still improve on. Joining the rush, getting involved in the offensive zone, but this is definitely good to see."

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Winger Scott Wilson is expected to soon resume skating for the first time since undergoing surgery on his right ankle last month, Housley told reporters following the morning skate.

Wilson broke his ankle during practice on Sept. 30 when he got tangled up with Ristolainen near the boards and was expected to miss eight-to-10 weeks. The 26-year-old had six goals with eight assists and a minus-17 rating in 49 games for the Sabres last season.

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Former Sabres captain Brian Gionta will return to Rochester for a special guest appearance on Fri., Dec. 21, when the Amerks host the Hartford Wolf Pack at Blue Cross Arena. Gionta appeared in one game with Rochester last season and trained there in preparation for the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Gionta retired this past summer after 16 seasons in the NHL, including three in Buffalo. He scored 40 goals in 230 games for the Sabres.

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