BUFFALO – After experiencing a “strange few months” recovering from a scary concussion, Tyler Ennis can smile now. But at times throughout the past 13 weeks, as his health constantly changed and the emotional toll wore on him, the speedy Sabres winger feared for his future.
“There’s days where you feel great and days where it’s tough,” Ennis said Thursday following his first practice since he was injured Dec. 30. “To say I wasn’t scared at some point would probably be a lie, but I feel so good right now. I feel great. I feel 100 percent.”
Wearing a red non-contact jersey and a special tinted visor, Ennis, 26, skated with his teammates for the first time since Capitals star Alex Ovechkin leveled him in Washington.
Ennis savored every minute of the session inside the First Niagara Center.
“It’s rare that this time of year you get a guy who’s so excited to be on the ice practicing with his teammates,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma joked.
After practice ended, the Sabres’ longest-tenured player couldn’t stop smiling.
“Today was a great day,” an excited Ennis said. “It was fun to be with the team. It’s so fun to be out there, joke around with the boys. I’m in a good mood.”
Only two games are left this season, starting with tonight’s home finale against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Ennis, of course, won’t play in either. The Sabres want to be cautious.
“I want to see him get back to health and get back to 100 percent, and I think today was a big step toward that direction,” Bylsma said. “I don’t want to see (problems) July 1. It’s been a long road. He’s had a lot of significant improvements in the last two weeks, 20 days.”
Ennis, who played only 23 times this season, said he wishes the Sabres had 82 games remaining.
“There’s probably a lot of sore guys who are looking forward to having a little time off, but for me, I wish we could play,” he said.
Ennis said he turned a corner in the last few weeks. His return to practice – he had been working out and skating on his own – just happened to fall two days before the season ends.
“It’s important because I know I can play hockey,” Ennis said. “It’s important because I feel great. It’s important because I got to be with the boys, be with the team. … Mostly, it was important because it means I was healthy.”
When the popular Ennis hit the ice Thursday morning, the Sabres had “big smiles,” winger Marcus Foligno said.
“It’s just good to see him kind of getting back to healthy,” he said. “It kind of put a smile on our faces. He’s a great teammate.”
In the more than three months Ennis spent recovering, he reflected on and developed a greater appreciation for what he calls “such a great job.”
Despite Ennis’ small stature – he’s generously listed at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds – he showcased remarkable durability during his first six seasons, missing only 41 games (34 came when he sprained his ankle twice in 2011-12).
But injuries have ravaged Ennis this season, helping stymy what was supposed to be a breakout campaign following consecutive 20-goal seasons. Two early injuries sidelined him 16 games.
When Ennis’ season abruptly ended 100 days ago, he hadn’t scored since Oct. 27, a 14-game drought. The freewheeler struggled to adapt to Bylsma’s new system, mustering only three goals and 11 points.
Still, Ennis is optimistic about the future. Having joined the Sabres late in 2009-10, he’s experienced a bit of everything, and after consecutive 30th-place finishes, the team’s new direction excites him.
The Sabres have won three straight games and seven of the last 11 contests (7-2-2), upping them to 34-35-11 this season.
“I think the last month or two we’ve taken our game to a new level,” Ennis said.
To the Sabres, reaching .500 would be very significant. They went 44-102-18 in the previous two seasons. They were seven games under .500 at three points in the winter.
“We want to get there,” Bylsma said. “I don’t know if winning one more game or two more games is going to be different than just winning 34 games. I don’t know if you can attach too much significance with it, but I think you can say the way we’ve played hockey over the last 30 games, 40 games, we feel like we’re a good hockey team.”
Foligno added: “To be .500, that’s something we battled to get and we want.”
For many non-playoff teams, the season can’t end soon enough. Not for the Sabres.
“We feel a little bit like the season’s running out of time on us,” Bylsma said. “Guys have been excited to play these games.”