BUFFALO – Instead of jetting away for a quick vacation during the NHL All-Star break, Dan Bylsma stayed close to home and enjoyed a rare breather from the arduous six-month season. The Sabres coach still watched some AHL games in Rochester, but he mostly relaxed and spent a little time fishing.
After getting “muddied out” of one trip, Bylsma caught 15 steelhead at an undisclosed location.
“We had a very good day of steelhead fishing,” Bylsma said Monday after the Sabres assembled again and practiced for about an hour inside HarborCenter. “I can’t tell you where.”
To Bylsma, the five-day recess was “energizing” and “refreshing.”
“Just had a few days, deep breath, spend some quiet time,” he said. “I was ready to come back to work about Sunday.”
Four months into what has often been a trying season, the 27th-place Sabres sorely needed a break. At this point, 50 games in, the playoffs are almost certainly out of the question.
Still, there are positive signs they’re making progress. The Sabres, who play Wednesday in Montreal, have won five of their last nine games, including a 3-2 comeback victory Tuesday in Ottawa that helped them carry good feelings into the break and Monday’s practice.
“I feel coming back from the break that was one of our best, most up-tempo practices for the first 35 minutes today where guys were fresh and jumping and practicing hard,” Bylsma said. “I look forward to what that means for us going into Montreal.”
Before the Sabres began their late-afternoon practice Monday, Bylsma had his players scrimmage. But rather than playing five-on-five, he had the entire team go out with two pucks on the ice. He also instructed everyone to use their opposite hands, so lefties shot righty and vice versa.
As you might expect, it looked pretty odd. It wasn’t easy, either.
“It’s amazing when all you do is switch over hands and you feel like you can’t even skate properly,” Sabres defenseman Josh Gorges said. “It was a fun little way to get back, get the legs going again, have a few laughs.”
Eventually, the Sabres got going and had an up-tempo practice.
Why did Bylsma start the session so peculiarly?
“We’ve all been gone different places for five days or so,” he said. “(It was) putting your head on a different way and having a little game to start with, getting us back. You know what? You’re going to see more competition from me in our practices … the rest of the way.”
As some of their recent efforts illustrate, despite being 11 points out of the final Eastern Conference wild card spot, the Sabres still have a strong belief they can change their season and make a run.
“Our goal is not going to change,” said Sabres winger Marcus Foligno, who spent some of his break in Florida. “It’s always going to be the playoffs.”
He added: “We’ve done it before. We have a lot of positivity in this dressing room. We have a lot of no-quit attitude. We have a lot of the right guys in place.”
Having a healthy lineup will certainly help the Sabres, who have a rigorous stretch – 20 games over 38 days – coming up.
“I think the break was much-needed,” Sabres winger Nick Deslauriers said. “I think we refreshed and came back stronger. Just a couple days off just feels good for the body and especially for the mind.”
Gorges, out five of the last six games with an upper-body injury, practiced Monday and should be able to play, Bylsma said. Ditto for Deslauriers, who has missed the last 11 games with a lower-body injury.
“I think after the first week I was already getting gray hairs almost,” Deslauriers said. “I’m the kind of guy that likes to play and even in practice stay as long as possible. It was awkward. It was one of my first times being out that long. I didn’t like it.”
Meanwhile, winger Sam Reinhart, out the last three games with an upper-body injury, practiced in a non-contact role. He should practice regularly Tuesday and could be available against the Canadiens, Bylsma said.
In other injury news, winger Tyler Ennis, out the last 13 games with an upper-body injury, is working out off the ice but hasn’t resumed skating, Bylsma said.
“He is progressing, but … it’s not enough for him to get on the ice,” Bylsma said. “I’d like to move him closer to week-to-week right now, but it’s not possible.”
Center Ryan O’Reilly didn’t practice because he was returning from the All-Star Game in Nashville.
Right now, it’s John Scott’s world. Everyone else is merely living in it.
On Monday, a day after earning NHL All-Star Game MVP honors as the Pacific Division captain, the former Sabres tough guy was named the league’s first star of the week.
“He took it with pride and enjoyed the whole weekend,” Foligno said. “I know I got pretty close to him when he was here. He’s a great guy, so it’s well deserved for him.”
Remember, Scott, who scored two goals in the new three-on-three format, isn’t even on an NHL roster. The Arizona Coyotes recently traded the NHL’s leading All-Star vote-getter to the Canadiens, who promptly dropped him to their AHL affiliate, the St. John’s IceCaps.
Hockey’s biggest sensation had one assist in 11 games this season before being sent to the minors.
Meanwhile, Sabres rookie Jack Eichel earned third star honors for the week ending Jan. 31. The center compiled two goals and four points, including the winning and tying goals Tuesday, in two games.
“Pretty good compliment,” Eichel said.
Columbus Blue Jackets winger Cam Atkinson (four goals, five points) was named second star.