BOSTON – Zemgus Girgensons held his right hand over his heart, surveyed the visitors' locker room inside TD Garden and shrugged his shoulders.
"It's really not that big of a deal," the Buffalo Sabres' relentless fourth-line winger said, showing where Torey Krug's slap shot struck him in the chest with 30 seconds remaining in a 4-2 win over the Boston Bruins on Sunday.
The decision to sacrifice himself ended the Bruins' final blitz and set up Jack Eichel's empty-net goal. On a night when Eichel and Jeff Skinner each scored twice, it was Girgensons' selfless act that best illustrated how the Sabres have gutted through a grueling schedule to knock off some of the NHL's elite teams.
"Maybe it’s not on the score sheet, but that could have been one of the biggest plays of the game for us," Eichel, who assisted on both of Skinner's goals, said. "[Girgensons] is a guy that does it every night. He brings his 100 percent effort. He plays the game more desperate than most guys out there and you can’t say enough about him. ... If we don’t get stuff like that during the season, I don't think we are where we are."
Taking one for the team.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) December 17, 2018
Girgensons was awarded with an assist, his fifth of the season, but to him, blocking a shot is as normal as a goalie making a save. His teammates have shared that sentiment throughout the season.
The Sabres, tied for fourth in the NHL with 45 points entering play Monday, are at their best when players throughout the lineup are contributing with acts such as blocked shots, body checks or chasing down the puck on a potential icing. Girgensons has contributed all three since he was a healthy scratch during a 6-2 loss to Philadelphia on Dec. 8.
That one-game absence came after he was a combined minus-3 in losses to Nashville and Toronto. He was inserted back in the lineup against Los Angeles after coach Phil Housley said Patrik Berglund was "sick." Berglund, a 30-year-old forward, was suspended by the Sabres on Saturday for "failure to report to the team."
Girgensons, a first-round draft pick in 2012, scored in his first game back when he stole the puck away from Kings defenseman Drew Doughty on the forecheck and fired a wrist shot past Cal Petersen.
"He’s been huge," Skinner said of Girgensons. "I think the last few games he’s made big plays at big times. ... The last few games he’s worked really hard. He’s beaten out some icings that led to goals. Obviously that block at the end is huge."
Though Girgensons has only three goals among eight points with a minus-2 rating in 31 games, he has found other ways to contribute. He ranks second on the team with 54 hits and is tied for third with 11 takeaways. During 5-on-5 play, Girgenson's Corsi-for percentage – which measures the percentage of shots taken by a team when a player is on the ice – ranks fourth among all Sabres forwards behind Skinner, Eichel and Jason Pominville.
Among Sabres with at least 25 games played, Girgensons has been on the ice for the fewest 5-on-5 scoring chances against and ranks second in shots allowed, despite ranking third in defensive zone starts. He is also partly responsible for them killing 18 of their last 19 penalties, which elevated Buffalo's penalty kill to fifth in the league entering Monday.
While Girgensons has averaged 13:53 of ice time, he often is tasked with facing an opponent's top line. Girgensons, Johan Larsson and Evan Rodrigues – the Sabres' fourth line – have thrived since being reunited, combining for three goals in wins over Los Angeles and Arizona.
"We click pretty well," Girgensons said. "We’re all pretty fast players. We push the pace, and we play pretty good in the D zone. Try to contribute offensively as much as we can. Do the hard work."
Girgensons has personified the new Sabres culture. They pride themselves on selflessness and effort. Eichel and Skinner deflect praise to teammates. Every forward and defenseman is quick to give credit to their goalies: Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark. That team-wide mentality is why Girgensons brushed off any praise or credit for his decision to dive in front of Krug's shot.
"We’ve had different guys doing it all season long," Girgensons said. "It just happened to be me this time blocking the shot. Not that big of a deal. Just a blocked shot."
The Sabres made another change to their defense Monday, sending Matt Tennyson back to Rochester. Tennyson, 28, was a healthy scratch for the Sabres' win over the Bruins. He was a minus-3 one night earlier in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals, a performance that prompted the team to recall Brendan Guhle from Rochester.
Tennyson did not record a point and was minus-4 in his four games with the Sabres.
Eichel was named the NHL's third star of the week after scoring five goals with four assists in four games, three of which the Sabres won. He had four goals during the two-game road trip to Washington and Boston, capped by his four-point performance against the Bruins.
Eichel entered Monday tied for sixth in the NHL with 45 points and his 31 assists were tied for fifth.