Growing up in Montreal as a Canadiens fan, John Gilmour didn't automatically gravitate to the team's defensemen. He was a fan of captain Saku Koivu flying up and down the middle of the ice.
Gilmour wasn't playing center Tuesday night in KeyBank Center, but he got a rare chance at forward for the first time as a professional. The injury-riddled Buffalo Sabres put him in the lineup against the Minnesota Wild and made him the first defenseman to play forward for the team in several years.
"I kind of joked about it with some of the guys," Gilmour said after the team's morning meetings. "Obviously you don't want the injury bug to be a thing, but we're definitely short on bodies. I said I'd love to step in and play forward if I can."
Gilmour, easily one of the best skaters on the Buffalo defense, said he had not played forward since his Midget hockey days as a teenager. He played on a line with fellow winger Zemgus Girgensons and center Rasmus Asplund – and they got the start against Minnesota's top line of Mikko Koivu between Zach Parise and Kevin Fiala.
"John’s been amazing in the way he’s dealt with being the extra defenseman," said coach Ralph Krueger. "When he came in, he played really well. We’re pleased to find another opportunity for him in the lineup. He’s an energy player, he’s a good skater. We’re all so confident that he can help us out on the wing."
"I'm just thinking to keep the game simple, get pucks deep and with my skating move my feet and go fast in every zone," Gilmour said. "Work hard and play safe."
Not since Lindy Ruff used the likes of Nathan Paetsch, Andrej Sekera and the late Steve Montador up front has a Buffalo coach put a defenseman on the forward lines. Krueger didn't have much choice, with Vladimir Sobotka, Marcus Johansson, Johan Larsson, Kyle Okposo and Tage Thompson all injured in Buffalo and Scott Wilson, C.J. Smith and Remi Elie down in Rochester.
Gilmour played in just three of the first 20 games, last in the Oct. 25 win at Detroit. But he has dutifully done his work every day and got a reward Tuesday.
"Honestly, I love the day to day here, whether I'm practicing or doing the extra work on game day when I'm not playing," he said. "I don't mind doing that at all. Watching the game from above, I'm learning things every day here. Especially being around this NHL club, it's just a great experience."
The Wild came to town minus former Sabres forward Marcus Foligno, who missed his fifth straight game with an upper-body injury. Foligno has two goals and four assists in 16 games.
It was Minnesota's 14th road game of the season, breaking a tie with Calgary for the most in the NHL. The Wild are 4-1-2 at home but entered the game an NHL-worst 3-10-0 away.
It was a big week for Sabres' goaltending prospects, as Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Erik Portillo earned weekly honors in their respective leagues.
Luukkonen was named ECHL Goaltender of the Week after posting shutouts in both of his appearances for the Cincinnati Cyclones. Portillo earned the same honor in the United States Hockey League while playing for the Dubuque Fighting Saints.
Luukkonen stopped all 45 shots he faced in wins over Allen (1-0 OT) and Fort Wayne (5-0). Buffalo's second-round pick in 2017 is on the road back from hip surgery and an eventual role as the starter in Rochester.
Luukkonen exited the week second in the ECHL with a 1.79 goals-against average and sixth with a .925 save percentage. Those figures took a hit Tuesday morning when he only stopped 19 of 23 shots in a 4-3 loss at Wheeling, a game that saw the Cyclones give up the winning goal with five seconds left in regulation.
Portillo, Buffalo's third-round pick last June in Vancouver, won both of his games last week while allowing just two goals. He posted a 0.99 goals-against average and .956 save percentage.
Portillo made 24 saves in Friday's 2-1 overtime win over Tri-City and then made 19 saves on Saturday in a 5-1 win over Lincoln. The University of Michigan commit is tied for the USHL lead with eight wins (8-1-1) and is second with a 2.17 GAA. He has a .907 save percentage.