ROCHESTER – Instead of building on a strong rookie season and working his name into the mix for a recall, Sabres prospect Sean Malone has spent the last seven months battling injuries.
Malone, of course, is frustrated. The West Seneca native hasn’t found much rhythm. Moving in and out of the lineup has sapped some of his confidence.
“It’s hard,” Malone said following Wednesday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in Blue Cross Arena, just his 33rd appearance this season. “When you’re playing a couple games and sitting out a couple games, you don’t really get any consistency whatsoever. It’s hard to stay confident about your game.
“When you sit out a lot, sometimes your cardiovascular system, it’s not quite there where you want it to be. It plays with your head a little bit. It’s all a part of pro hockey.”
Malone, 23, suffered a knee injury in the Sabres’ exhibition opener Sept. 17 in Columbus, an ominous start to his second pro season. He finally made his American Hockey League season debut Nov. 7.
The speedy center missed just one game over the next two months. But a lower-body injury he suffered in January cost him 16 games. He returned for seven contests before another injury shelved him four games.
Following his first game back last Friday, Malone was irked by his weak play, saying he felt rusty and “hasn’t been playing that well.”
“Injuries have played a role,” he said. “The mental aspect of the game has been difficult this year. I think I have more to bring to the table that I did tonight.”
He added: “It’s a hard game to take time off all the time and play. It’s sort of been the story for me. It’s frustrating.”
Amerks coach Chris Taylor sat Malone for Saturday’s game in Toronto, apparently to rest him. Since they beat the Marlies 5-2, Taylor kept the same lineup for Sunday’s 5-4 overtime win in Toronto.
Taylor, however, refused to call Malone a healthy scratch.
Malone, meanwhile, didn’t want to talk about it.
“There’s a lot of things that have been going on with my health and stuff,” said Malone, who has scored three goals and 12 points this season.
When asked if he was being eased back into the lineup, Malone replied, “I can’t really comment on that.”
Malone said he felt better Wednesday. Taylor utilized him as a net-front presence on the power play. He also moved him up to left wing on a scoring line when the flu forced C.J. Smith to leave the game.
“It’s tough to get back – mentally try to get back, get in shape to get back,” Taylor said. “It takes a toll. Then all of a sudden, you’re out of sync with your linemates. Then all of a sudden, you’re getting thrown in on a different line that you haven’t played with.
“He’s got to start at the bottom because everyone is playing very well for us. … He’s got to fight his way back.”
Malone, a sixth-round pick in 2013 (159th overall), has endured a slew of injuries over the years. He underwent surgery on both hips during college. As a rookie last season, an undisclosed injury cost him all of training camp.
But Malone has always bounced back. At Harvard, he quietly developed into a strong prospect over four years.
The Sabres’ old regime thought so highly of Malone they awarded him an NHL game after he signed his entry-level contract almost two years ago.
Malone enjoyed a terrific rookie season in 2017-18, establishing himself as a two-way presence while scoring 12 goals and 22 points in 73 games.
It looked like he could earn an opportunity as the Sabres’ third- or fourth-line center someday.
“I have high expectations for myself,” Malone said. “When those aren’t met, it can be very mentally challenging. I’m used to it, but at the same time, I want to bring more to the table and help the team in a more positive way.”
On the verge
The Amerks can clinch a playoff spot for the second consecutive year on Friday if they beat the Laval Rocket and the Cleveland Monsters lose to Lehigh Valley in regulation, according to the AHL.