PITTSBURGH – Buffalo Sabres veteran Justin Falk has carved out a solid 229-game NHL career by showcasing a gritty, no-frills style.
The 6-foot-5, 223-pound Falk is a defensive defenseman.
“In this league, I’ve always been pretty conservative as far as where I go on the offensive side and the rush and skating and all that,” Falk said prior to Tuesday’s 5-4 overtime loss to the Penguins inside PPG Paints Arena.
But Sabres coach Phil Housley wants his defensemen playing aggressively. So Falk, who skates well for a big man, feels comfortable moving into the play.
“The way they want the D here being a bit more active and all that has kind of brought me out of my shell maybe,” Falk said.
Out of his shell and onto Buffalo’s No. 1 defense pair. Housley, a Hall of Fame defenseman, obviously likes Falk’s style and his newfound assertiveness.
“It’s a unique situation I find myself in right now,” said Falk, who made his season debut Nov. 2 after suffering a lower-body injury late in training camp.
With injuries still ravaging the blue line – three defensemen are injured – Housley has been relying heavily on Falk, skating him 18 or 19 minutes, the most the depth defender has skated since the end of 2015-16 with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“He brings a physical element to the game, he’s a tough competitor, he protects our net front well, he puts himself in harm’s way blocking shots,” Housley said. “But I also like him jumping up in the play. You saw in Montreal (on Saturday) he joined the rush a couple times.
“As part of our system we want our D to get up and get involved. He can get the job done. I think his skating has improved well this year. He’s just reading the game and what the game brings him.”
Ironically, Falk has been playing on the right side beside Marco Scandella, his friend and former teammate with the Minnesota Wild and their old AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros.
But Falk and Scandella, two left-handed shots, never played together until Housley put them together earlier this month.
“He’s a horse,” Falk said of Scandella. “He’s got the same mindset to shut down, to work your tail off, to try to give up nothing. We both have that mindset we don’t want to be scored on, we don’t want to give up anything against. That can be frustrating to play against.”
Like last season, Falk has quickly impressed a new regime. After starting 2016-17 in the minors, Falk looked so good former Sabres general manager Tim Murray awarded him an in-season contract extension.
“Last year, I tried to come in here show people the flexibility that they could use with me in the lineup, up and down, left side, right side – wherever they wanted to put me,” Falk said.
Now, the Sabres keep putting him on the top defense pair.
“I don’t think in my career (I’ve) ever been in this position,” Falk said.
The Sabres sent winger Justin Bailey, 22, back to the Rochester Americans on Monday after the youngster recovered from his lower-body injury.
“He’s been out for a while, get his timing back, get his confidence back,” Housley said. “I thought he started out well the first couple games. I thought his play dipped a bit after that, that urgency he had on the forecheck using his speed and even in providing a physical element.”
Bailey had two goals and three points in seven NHL games. The former second-round pick started the season in the AHL.
By 8 a.m. on June 30, a few thousand people had gathered outside San Diego Ice Arena for a glimpse of the Stanley Cup, Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said.
“I was just completely blown away by it,” said Ruhwedel, a San Diego native who began his career with the Sabres.
Ruhwedel said it was possibly the first time hockey’s top prize traveled to San Diego.
“It was just a long but very eventful day,” he said.
Ruhwedel, who played six games during the Penguins’ playoff run, enjoyed his day with the Cup before any of his teammates. He closed it by bringing the Cup to a waterfront restaurant by a beach.
The Sabres had two healthy scratches, defenseman Victor Antipin and winger Seth Griffith.
Update: The NHL has fined Scandella $5,000 for slashing winger Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist on Tuesday.
The NHL Department of Player Safety announced the fine, the maximum allowable under the collective bargaining agreement, today.
Scandella was given a slashing penalty 10:21 in the second period. The NHL donates the money to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.