BUFFALO, N.Y. – Centre Ville Leino took a quick glance around the Buffalo Sabres’ locker-room and was encouraged to see the number of familiar veteran faces coming off the ice from practice.
That’s a sign the Sabres are getting healthier which, for Leino, also means they’re starting to once again resemble an NHL team.
“It’s definitely a confidence builder,” Leino said Wednesday. “When we’re healthy, you look around and there’s a lot of good players and it’s a really deep team. But you take five guys out of it, it’s almost like a minor-league team. So it’s definitely a huge difference.”
After spending the past month losing one player after another to injury, the Sabres are preparing to welcome back a number of healthy reinforcements—Leino, defenceman Tyler Myers and centre Tyler Ennis.
Leino’s missed nine games with a broken left foot, and projects he could be ready to return by as early as Saturday, when the Sabres host Winnipeg. Leino, one of the Sabres high-priced off-season additions, felt fine after spending nearly two hours on the ice, including a half-hour session before practice.
Myers is eyeing to return for Friday’s game at Carolina after tests showed his broken right wrist is fully healed. After missing 19 games, the 2010 NHL rookie of the year gave his wrist its first significant test in practice by firing off a number of hard slap shots.
“I feel as good as I can be,” Myers said. “I have that peace of mind that I can really bear down on it.”
And coach Lindy Ruff didn’t rule out the possibility of Ennis being back in the lineup by this weekend. The speedy, play-making centre has missed six games with an ankle injury.
“It’s very encouraging,” Ruff said. “We feel they’re important pieces to our team. We’re getting good players back.”
That doesn’t leave Buffalo injury free. Defencemen Christian Ehrhoff and Andrej Sekera are out indefinitely with upper-body injuries.
But it’s still a marked improvement for a team that has had 18 players miss at least one game due to injuries, and at one point was playing minus nine regulars.
The injuries have taken their toll. Buffalo’s 4-3 win over Edmonton on Tuesday was only the team’s second in eight games (2-5-1) and sixth in 20 (6-10-4).
The Sabres haven’t won consecutive games since winning four in a row from Nov. 4-11. And the ever-changing lineup put a dent in the offence. Prior to beating the Oilers, the Sabres had been held to two or fewer goals 13 times in their past 20 games.
On the bright side, Buffalo (18-17-4) still has a winning record and sits 11th in the Eastern Conference standings, only four points out of playoff contention. That’s a lot better than where the Sabres were a little over a year ago, when they required a 29-11-6 surge to secure a playoff berth on the final weekend of the season.
And yet, the expectations were much higher for a team that opened the season with a high-priced lineup and a first-year owner in Terry Pegula, who made no secret of his objective to build an immediate contender.
Ruff acknowledged the injuries and the mounting losses ate away at his team’s confidence.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that losing is stressful,” he said. “Losing the number of players, and bringing up the number of players, and losing tight games, and not being able to finish games has been stressful.”
He’s hoping the win over Edmonton could be a turning point.
“I think you wrap your arms around the good stuff that starts to happen,” Ruff said, particularly noting how forward Drew Stafford ended a lengthy slump with a goal and two assists against the Oilers. “We’ve had a couple of players who have been pretty frustrated by their offensive output. And I thought last night, they gave us a spark.”