BUFFALO – Doing extra work on and off the ice to stay sharp for your next opportunity is the easy part for healthy scratches.
“It’s not so much my body, my hands, my legs,” said Sabres defenseman Nathan Beaulieu, who has been scratched 12 out of the last 15 games. “It’s more the mental part of it. The game’s really fast. You step in the position you’re in, a lot is on the line, so it’s important that you’re ready.”
Right now, the Sabres have eight healthy defensemen, meaning coach Phil Housley must sit out two healthy ones every game. Casey Nelson is also practicing again after recovering from an upper-body injury.
For more than a month, Beaulieu and Matt Hunwick have usually been the odd guys out.
“There’s 22, 23 other hours in the day where it can creep in your mind you’re not playing,” said Hunwick, who has played only two games this season after recovering from a neck injury. “You just try to focus on the things that you can control, be a good teammate.”
However, Hunwick, 33, might dress for tonight’s road tilt against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Sabres’ first outing since Jan. 18 following their bye week and the NHL All-Star break.
Hunwick, a healthy scratch the last 13 games, has been practicing beside defenseman Marco Scandella, a sign he has possibly cracked the top six.
Still, Housley wouldn’t officially say Hunwick would play his first game since Dec. 18.
“We’ll know more tomorrow,” Housley said Monday inside KeyBank Center.
Based on Monday’s practice pairings, Beaulieu, 26, and rookie Lawrence Pilut, 23, will likely be scratched tonight. Before the long break, Pilut, who has passed Beaulieu on the depth chart, struggled in the Sabres’ 4-3 road loss to the Vancouver Canucks.
For the third straight contest and eighth time in the last nine outings, Beaulieu could watch his teammates.
A report surfaced two weeks ago the affable Beaulieu, a former first-round pick by the Montreal Canadiens, had requested a trade.
Beaulieu wants to make it clear he loves being a part of the Sabres and the city.
“Buffalo’s taken me with open arms,” Beaulieu said Monday.
But Beaulieu, a restricted free agent following the season, wants game action.
“Let’s face it, we’re in a business now,” Beaulieu said. “I’m a hockey player and … I feel like I can play every night. I think I proved that over my time in this league. So (the) bottom line is you just want to be out there and help this team because we set ourselves up. We’re in a pretty good position for the second half.”
As the Sabres, who have fallen from first overall to fifth in the Atlantic Division, piled up wins early on, it was easier for Housley to pick his defense lineup.
“We’ve made decisions earlier in the season and we were having a lot more success, and it was easier to change guys when we were winning or losing,” Housley said. “But now it’s sort of been driven by results. That’s what goes into a lot of those decisions. Are we getting the results?
“We’ve got eight very good defensemen that can play. So that’s tough decisions. It falls on me to make the right one.”
Hunwick, who arrived from the Pittsburgh Penguins on June 27, has endured an odd campaign. The neck injury he suffered working out during the offseason sidelined him until Dec. 16.
“I’ve played two NHL games in probably nine or 10 months,” Hunwick said. “I’m sure there will be some rust next time I play just from a lack of playing. Guys are too good at this point to kind of feel like you can just jump in and be at your best.
“But I think that’s kind of the goal. That’s why you practice so hard, that’s why you do all the things away from the rink to give yourself the best opportunity when you go in.”
Sitting out hasn’t sapped much of Beaulieu’s confidence. He knows he contributed regularly to the Sabres early on, contributing some solid minutes.
“(Playing only) 26 games stinks,” Beaulieu said of his season. “But I’m happy with where I’m at. Obviously, I just got to try to keep developing. It’s tough not playing. I’m a 26-year-old defenseman. I feel like I could skate well, got good skill.
“I just give a lot of credit to my teammates. They’ve really helped me along (with) this. It hasn’t been the easiest road. The bottom line is it’s just human nature, you want to be out there.”