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Lower-body injury forces Evan Rodrigues out of Sabres lineup against Tampa Bay

TAMPA, Fla. – The lower-body injury Evan Rodrigues sustained Sunday night against the Florida Panthers will keep him out of the Buffalo Sabres' lineup for at least one game.

Sabres coach Ralph Krueger told reporters ahead of a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Amalie Arena on Monday that Rodrigues' injury is not thought to be "long-term" and Rodrigues will be evaluated when the team returns to Buffalo on Tuesday.

Rodrigues skated slowly off the BB&T Center ice following his 40-second shift in the first period of a 5-2 win over the Panthers. His absence forced Krueger to use defenseman Brandon Montour at forward and Casey Mittelstadt moved to center.

The Sabres recalled center Jean-Sebastien Dea with Rodrigues unavailable against the Lightning. Dea has excelled in the faceoff circle during his 18 games in Rochester and provided Krueger with another right-handed option at center.

“The dream is to have six centermen in a lineup of 12 forwards, just because of all the different options it gives you and moving people around and putting people on the wing for instance," Krueger said. "Like, Mittelstadt’s been outstanding off the wing and then shifting back to center six minutes into a game, I thought he did a really good job of that [Sunday]. Having centermen, if it’s a tie, I’d always take the centerman from Rochester to come up."

Rodrigues, 26, has two assists with a minus-two rating in 14 games this season. He was a healthy scratch on nine occasions but was elevated to a top-six role with Marcus Johansson (upper body) out of the lineup. Rodrigues elevated his game over the past two weeks and was robbed of a potential third-period goal last Thursday in Boston on what he later called "arguably the save of the year" by Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask.

Entering Monday, Mittelstadt had started three games on the wing, a move made by Krueger to try to coax more offense from the 21-year-old. Mittelstadt shifted back to center following Rodrigues' injury and recorded one shot on goal in 15:20 of ice time against Florida.

Johansson has missed the past seven games, and Krueger hopes the 29-year-old will be able to return to the Sabres' lineup sometime this week. Johansson has four goals among 10 points in 17 games this season.

Dea is the fifth player recalled from Rochester this month, joining Lawrence Pilut, Rasmus Asplund, Curtis Lazar and Tage Thompson. Andrew Oglevie and Scott Wilson are the only healthy forwards with an NHL contract on the Amerks' roster.

In addition to Rodrigues and Johansson, the Sabres are without Thompson (upper body), Vladimir Sobotka (lower body) and Kyle Okposo (concussion).

"There's definitely a lot of depth and you're still seeing it now with the guys that are sitting out right now," Jeff Skinner said. "They're for sure good enough to be playing. It still seems like we've got some bodies to spare, but anytime you have injuries, it opens up opportunities. I think guys have done a great job of stepping up and trying to sort of capitalize."

Skills competition

The Sabres will host a skills challenge inside KeyBank Center for a second consecutive season on Jan. 5, the team announced Monday. The roster will split into two teams to compete in hardest shot, accuracy showdown, puck control relay, power play challenge, shootout challenge and passing challenge.

To commemorate the Sabres' 50th anniversary, players will wear custom jerseys in recognition of the 1978 All-Star Game, which was held in Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium. The jerseys will be auctioned off after the event with all proceeds benefiting the Buffalo Sabres Foundation.

Tickets will cost the general public $10 and will be available for purchase online Dec. 3. Season ticket holders will have the opportunity to purchase tickets for $5 on Dec. 5. Doors will open for the event at 9 a.m., and an autograph session with alumni will begin at 9:30 a.m.

Taylor returns

Rochester coach Chris Taylor, who served as an interim assistant on Krueger's staff during Don Granato's medical leave, returned to practice with the Amerks on Monday inside Blue Cross Arena.

Taylor did not join the Sabres during the second leg of their three-game road trip, but he was unable to coach the Amerks on Saturday in Binghamton. Rochester hosts the Toronto Marlies on Friday night.

"I didn't really know him much; I had met him a couple times in training camp, but I thought he was great," Skinner said of Taylor. "He's really smart. You could tell he was a smart player, just the way he thinks the game. He's really positive, which is nice. I thought he did a great job here."

McKee gone

Jay McKee, a former Buffalo Sabres defenseman, was dismissed as coach of the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers on Monday. McKee was amid his fourth season as the Rangers' head coach and led them to three consecutive playoff appearances.

Following his playing career, McKee spent one season each as an assistant coach with Niagara University, the Rochester Americans, Erie Otters and the Rangers. He played 582 games during his 10 seasons with the Sabres.

Stephens trade

There was more to the Sabres' trade Sunday night than acquiring defenseman Matthew Spencer from Tampa Bay. Assistant General Manager Randy Sexton explained that the organization wanted to give defenseman Devante Stephens an opportunity to play in the American Hockey League.

Stephens is expected to join the Syracuse Crunch after being acquired by the Lightning. The former fifth-round draft pick had appeared in only three games for the Cincinnati Cyclones this season and his path to Rochester was blocked by a number of talented defensemen.

"The highest priority was to give him an opportunity," Sexton said of Stephens. "He’s been a great Sabre and Amerk for us since the day we drafted him. He’s worked hard at his game, but at this stage, he hasn’t had the opportunity to play at a higher level that every player aspires to. It was really as much about giving a very loyal person an opportunity to play somewhere else."

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