WINNIPEG – The standings tell a depressing tale, but the Buffalo Sabres still had plenty of life at practice late Monday afternoon in Bell MTS Place.
There was speed, chatter, spirit and byplay throughout the 45-minute workout as the team came directly to the rink off the plane from Arizona. Coach Ralph Krueger said newcomers Wayne Simmonds and Dominik Kahun have added life to help the group dynamic, and the team was also buoyed by the presence of two other players on the ice nobody expected to see here.
Winger Victor Olofsson was in his normal spot on a line with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, a surprising development after most observers thought his season might be over when he hobbled to the bench during Saturday's loss to the Coyotes.
And goaltender Linus Ullmark was on the ice with the team for the first time since suffering a right leg injury when he caught his skate in a crease rut during the Jan. 28 loss to Ottawa.
Olofsson will be in the lineup Tuesday night against the Winnipeg Jets. Ullmark, meanwhile, was just undertaking the next step in his return-to-play progression and is not ready for game action.
The Sabres, of course, would love to get Ullmark back as soon as they can. The goaltending tandem of Carter Hutton and Jonas Johansson has simply not been good enough on this trip, posting a mediocre .890 save percentage in losing all three games.
Ullmark, meanwhile, was playing some of the best hockey of his career. Until the injury, he was 5-3 in January with a 2.17 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. He already has a career-high 16 wins.
"Especially off breakdowns and second chances, he just stayed strong and solid and calm, and we loved that about his game," said Krueger. "We need to find that back really quickly."
Krueger said the Sabres wanted Ullmark to get back into practice to take shots from NHL players, something that's not possible while working with the club's rehab team. Ullmark agreed with that notion but said the trip here was a big mental boost for him as well.
"It's more to being around the boys; that's the biggest thing for me right is to be around the guys socializing," he said. "When you're injured, you're kind of in your own bubble trying to work on things you need to do to get back as soon as possible so you don't really hang around the boys now. That's one of the things I really enjoy doing. We're all sociable people. It's been a challenge, so it's nice to be back."
Ullmark's injury came on a freak play, as he crumbled in the crease trying to push off when no other player was near him. Losing five weeks of the season at crunch time was difficult to accept.
"Obviously every injury is tough. Doesn't matter how big or how small it is," he said. "You want to be in the game, playing games, helping the boys out and you want to win. Once you get injured and you're sitting there watching and not being a part of it, it's tough.
"I had good conversations with the medical teams at all times what to expect, what to work on going forward. I just took it day by day. ... I have a lot of gratitude towards the guys who helped me during this time."
Krueger said Ullmark will take more shots Tuesday morning and again at practice on Wednesday. Thursday's home game against Pittsburgh still seems a bit premature for a return, but perhaps the club pushes for Saturday's game in Philadelphia or next Monday's visit by the Washington Capitals.
"I don't know. You take it day by day. This is my first team practice," Ullmark said. "We'll see how tomorrow goes, the next day after that and we'll take it from there."
Olofsson collided with Arizona's Brad Richardson and hobbled off the ice with no weight on the ankle he sprained Jan. 2 that cost him 15 games. It was much like when Jack Eichel suffered a similar issue in 2016; players returning often tear scar tissue and go into a brief shock thinking they have reinjured their foot.
"I felt good yesterday on the day off, felt like I was able to practice today and felt good on the ice," Olofsson said. "I'm good to go. It happens once in a while. It's just you have to be a little bit more cautious. We didn't want to force anything."
"It looks like he felt good today and we're really pleased," Krueger said. "We all had no idea which way this was going to go, and it's gone in the right direction. ... There is some synergy evolving in the lines so we want to leave them together. Getting Victor back in the lineup is a big bonus for us."