BUFFALO – Right now, thanks to his torrid goal-scoring run in the AHL and some injuries with the big club, Sabres winger Justin Bailey has the best opportunity of his young career to stick in the NHL for good.
For the last five weeks, the speedy Bailey, 21, has enjoyed regular duty, playing 19 straight games. Some contests the Williamsville native has skated on a top line.
“It’s a really big one,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said of Bailey’s opportunity. “You’re trying to develop and grow within our organization. This is a huge opportunity for him to show just exactly what type of effective player he can be.”
Clearly, the Sabres want Bailey, arguably their best forward prospect, to seize this chance. They recently used one of their four remaining recalls to keep him up, so they want him to stay the rest of the season.
The 6-foot-3, 214-pound Bailey has skated all over the lineup since returning Feb. 4. He mostly played on the right side with center Zemgus Girgensons and Marcus Foligno in Saturday’s 5-3 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets inside KeyBank Center. He played with top center Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane in Friday’s 4-3 loss in Columbus.
“I just try to play a similar game, no matter what line I’m on, effort and my speed are two things that I can control,” Bailey said. “The more I’m playing hard and physical and gritty on any line, the more it works to my advantage.”
What has earned Bailey opportunities with top lines?
“He’s got the ability and potential to be a guy that can add with speed and skating and force,” Bylsma said of Bailey. “That’s what he’s done when he’s played well. Regardless of if he’s on a line after the power plays with Zemgus and (Foligno). … That’s what he needs to continue to do.”
Bailey had 19 goals and 29 points in 40 games with the Rochester Americans prior to his third recall this season. He had two goals and four points in 27 NHL games entering Saturday.
Consistency, of course, might be Bailey’s biggest hurdle to sticking around. The second-year pro has the skating ability and skill set to thrive in the NHL.
“I’ve had the legs, I’ve had the effort just about every game I can remember while I’ve been up here,” the rookie said. “That’s something that I’ve been working on, is having that speed every single night.”
Sabres goalie Anders Nilsson started Saturday, just his third nod in the last 16 games.
Nilsson allowed three goals on 12 shots before getting pulled with the Sabres down 3-0 after the first period. No. 1 goalie Robin Lehner, who made 35 saves in Friday’s loss, replaced him.
Lehner has been slumping. Since getting bumped three times in the head area Feb. 25 in Colorado, Lehner was 1-3-2 with a 3.79 goals-against average and a .881 save percentage entering Saturday.
Bylsma believes gritty defenseman Josh Gorges has played his best hockey this season since returning from a hip injury Feb. 4.
“Over the last stretch here, we haven’t had a lot of success, but he’s been a card-carrying member of how we want to play and being tough, aggressive and physical and putting his body on the line for the team,” Bylsma said. “That’s got to be the mantra of our team.”
Gorges, 34, scored his first goal of the season Friday, ending a 77-game drought dating back to Feb. 12, 2016. Gorges has 17 goals in 736 NHL games.
Notes: Kane, who scored the third-period winner on the power play, now has three of his team-leading 25 goals on the man advantage. … Center Jack Eichel, whose empty-net goal sealed it, has an NHL-best 19 assists and 25 points since Feb. 1. … The Sabres are 12-2 this season when Eichel has at least two points.