After a week off, the Buffalo Sabres returned to the ice Sunday to start the road on their longshot run at a playoff berth. It got a big boost with the return of Jeff Skinner.
The club's $72 million man practiced fully in LECOM Harborcenter and is a good bet to play Tuesday night in KeyBank Center against Ottawa when the Sabres play their first game after the All-Star break.
"Jeff looks really good today. He felt good," coach Ralph Krueger said after the team practiced for nearly 90 minutes over two sessions. "Obviously it's his first time back in the bigger group after multiple weeks and we have to be patient with the process but the first reports are that he feels strong and ready to go. So let's hope it continues down this path for the game on Tuesday."
Skinner suffered an upper-body injury believed to be to his shoulder during a collision Dec. 27 with Boston star David Pastrnak. He has been skating on his own for about two weeks with Dennis Miller, the club's rehab coordinator, and was on the ice during the team's break.
"Any rehab you always start by skating by yourself so it's always nice to take the step of skating with your teammates," said a smiling Skinner, who has 11 goals and eight assists in 39 games. "I felt good. I was the only one that wasn't rusty out there. I felt really good."
We'll get a better idea of where Skinner fits into the Buffalo lineup at practice on Monday, when Jack Eichel returns from his trip to St. Louis after the All-Star Game. He skated Sunday with Marcus Johansson and Michael Frolik, although lines were mostly jumbled due to Eichel's absence.
Skinner has not scored in 11 games, since the the Dec. 2 win over New Jersey. But he had been playing noticeably better in the final games prior to his injury and Krueger seemed more willing to consider putting him back with Eichel in the pairing that helped Skinner produce his career-high 40 goals last season.
"During the season you go through stretches where you're better than others and I felt like I was playing well," Skinner said. "It's unfortunate. At the same time guys have done a great job. I've been watching and it's time for us to make a push now."
Skinner said he felt fortunate he only missed 10 games since the Sabres have not played since Jan. 18, and that it was good to have a different viewpoint of games during his time out of the lineup.
"You get a little bit more of an opportunity to sit back and watch it from a larger perspective," he said. "You're not as worried about how you're playing or the plays you're making. You're able to take in the games as a whole. You subconsciously get a better understanding of how things are going and a little refreshment from the day-to-day grind."
The Sabres went 4-1 in their final five games before the break, then sat back and watched as other teams kept winning. When play resumes in the league Monday, they will be 10 points out of a playoff spot, both third place in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference wild cards. But they're still alive, largely because nine of the next 10 games are at home.
"We put ourselves in this position and we need to dig ourselves out of it," Krueger said. "With the homestand coming up here, we have opportunity to get contact again to the race and that's what this season is about is being in the race. We're not in it right now and we need to fight ourselves back in it."
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The Sabres have 12 forwards after returning Rasmus Asplund to Rochester over the break and Krueger said a lineup of 11 forwards and seven defenseman remains an option for Tuesday.
"We needed to assess how Jeff Skinner was doing today," Krueger said. "I'll be speaking with Jason [GM Jason Botterill] about our situation up front and whether we're going to go 11 or 12 on Tuesday will be a factor. Rasmus deserves a bit of a break right now, too. He went down and played some games and hasn't had a break. He's on the edge of coming back here depending on our needs. We'll look at this group again and make a call on the game day if we need to add to the roster or not."
Defenseman Lawrence Pilut returned to practice after being recalled from Rochester. He scored the overtime winning goal for the Amerks in Wednesday's victory in Cleveland.
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The Sabres are officially listing Skinner as day to day. Victor Olofsson, who injured his ankle Jan. 2 against Edmonton, remains listed as week to week. Olofsson's timetable of five to six weeks would carry him into mid-February.