BUFFALO – The NHL’s hottest late-season line lasted four games before an awful start – zero goals – forced Sabres coach Lindy Ruff to scatter Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford earlier this year.
Prior to the season, the thought of the trio skating together for a full campaign had Sabres fans drooling.
Then, by Jan. 27, the line was done.
Now, the combination’s back together, showcasing some of what helped it compile a whopping 21 goals and 49 points during the final month of 2011-12.
A strong forecheck from Ennis and Foligno created Stafford’s first goal since March 31 in Friday’s 4-2 win over Boston. Ennis and Stafford later assisted on Christian Ehrhoff’s third-period winner.
Afterward, Ruff called them the Sabres’ best line.
“I think because of the way we played (last season) people just maybe thought we’d been together a while,” Ennis said Saturday after the Sabres prepared for this afternoon’s tilt against the Pittsburgh Penguins inside the First Niagara Center. “But it was still new and fresh. There’s learning curves. We’re having fun with it, though. We need to keep improving.”
Foligno added: “We’ve only played together a certain amount of games. It hasn’t been a year or two we’ve played with each other. There’s going to be ruts.”
The Sabres need the line, which Ruff reunited recently, to produce consistently.
Despite their first slump this season, the Cody Hodgson, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek trio has still scored 23 of the Sabres’ 42 goals, 54 percent of the scoring.
But they’re starting to slow down. Vanek’s pointless in three straight games after scoring 11 goals and 23 points in his first 11 appearances. Pominville’s pointless in the last five games. Hodgson scored Friday, breaking a two-game point drought.
Ruff said Vanek, who battled a muscle strain last month, isn’t hurt and simply “didn’t go well the last couple.”
“Sometimes it’s one or two games that you get a little bit out of sync,” Ruff said. “I think that you’ll see him right back on track here (against Pittsburgh).”
Ennis has quietly compiled five goals and 12 points at center, giving the Sabres some much-needed secondary scoring. But the power wingers haven’t produced much.
Foligno has one just goal and eight points. Stafford only has Friday’s score and seven points.
“You always want some sort of balance,” Stafford said. “You don’t want one line carrying the line the whole time. Also, you don’t want to see them go completely cold. … Hopefully, we can make up for it right now if they’re not having a night where they’re producing.”
Before Friday, the line had been gaining momentum, narrowly missing some nice chances.
But what happened in January? Why couldn’t the three score early on?
“I think when you really break it down, last year we really had a lot of our opportunities on odd-man rushes, a lot of two-on-ones, breaks, transitions,” Stafford explained. “I think maybe teams were a little more aware of that, maybe shut that down a little bit, made it a little bit more difficult for us to have any kind of attack on the rush. It took a little bit of an adjustment period for us to get that going.
“Obviously, the last few games it seems like we’ve been getting a few more chances. Production’s finally coming. Hopefully, it’s just the start.”
Ruff sees the linemates getting inside to the dirty areas in front of the net, setting themselves up for rebounds. The speedy Ennis is also helping to create a more north-south style, he said.
The trio’s ability to hold the puck tells Ennis the combination’s clicking.
“When we haven’t been doing as well we haven’t had the puck as much,” Ennis said. “That’s because we haven’t been getting it to the right spots in the neutral zone. We haven’t been in the right spots in the offensive zone. So when we have the puck and we’re on the forecheck, that’s when you know we’re going.”
Stafford, a notoriously streaky player, believes his first goal in 18 games could get him going. The 27-year-old assistant captain thinks he handled his long slump well, staying positive throughout the ordeal.
“It comes with maturity, it comes with age,” Stafford said. “It’s one of those things where I’ve been through it before unfortunately. But everyone’s gone through it before. It’s just a matter of keeping the right attitude. If you’re coming around the rink and you have a bad attitude and you’re sulking around, it’s just going to rub off on other guys, and we don’t need that right now.”