BUFFALO – Three months ago Monday, Casey Nelson suffered an upper-body injury in the Sabres’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The defenseman spent about seven weeks recovering and rehabbing before waiting another six weeks for an opportunity to play NHL games.
Nelson, who dressed for 22 of the Sabres’ first 29 contests, began practicing again in late January and completed a five-game AHL conditioning assignment with the Rochester Americans on Feb. 17.
Upon returning to the Sabres, Nelson sat out eight straight games as a healthy scratch.
“I’m just waiting for an opportunity,” Nelson said prior to Monday’s 4-3 loss to the Edmonton Oilers inside KeyBank Center.
That opportunity finally materialized Monday.
With defenseman Matt Hunwick in for Jake McCabe, who’s sidelined five to six weeks with an upper-body injury, Nelson, 26, was the team’s only spare defenseman.
But Sabres coach Phil Housley hinted Monday morning that Nelson, who skated as an extra beside forward Vladimir Sobotka before the game, might finally return.
Zach Bogosian couldn’t play because of a lower-body injury, so Nelson moved into the lineup. Bogosian is day-to-day, according to the team.
“Just a mental battle, which I’m in a good state of mind, so it’s not too hard when you got good teammates and good people around you,” Nelson said of sitting out. “It’s obviously tough not playing, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
The Sabres are in a three-month rut. They went 12-6-4 with Nelson in the lineup earlier this season.
So why didn’t Nelson, a right-handed shot, play earlier?
“It’s more the lefty-righty thing for me,” Housley said. “We’ve got three righties and a lot of them haven’t played on the left side.”
Housley utilized newcomer Brandon Montour, a righty, on the left side in Saturday’s 5-2 loss in Toronto.
Nelson skated beside rookie Rasmus Dahlin, his partner for several games earlier this season, Monday.
Having won the award named after Ted Lindsay twice, Connor McDavid said he “had the honor” of meeting one of hockey’s all-time legendary figures, who passed away Monday at age 93.
“Nobody’s done … what he’s done for the players in the game,” the Edmonton Oilers captain said of the former Detroit Red Wings star. “It’s amazing. You can’t say enough good things about him.”
On the ice, Lindsay, nicknamed “Terrible Ted,” was a Hall of Famer and one of the fiercest competitors in NHL history. Off it, he fought for the players.
In the late 1950s, Lindsay filed an antitrust lawsuit against the league in an attempt to start a players’ association. While the bold move fell short, it laid the groundwork for the establishment of the NHL Players’ Association in 1967.
McDavid, 22, said it’s important today’s players understand Lindsay’s contributions to hockey.
“We all grew up playing this game, loving this game and kind of want to see how this game got to where it is today,” McDavid said prior to the game. “He’s obviously somebody that’s played a huge role in basically starting the PA and giving the players a voice. It’s pretty special what he’s done for the players.”
McDavid then mentioned he read Monday morning Lindsay refused to attend his Hall of Fame induction in 1966 because wives and families weren’t invited to the ceremony.
“That’s amazing,” McDavid said. “That just shows what he’s about. He was not afraid to stand up to anyone and stand up for what he believed in.”
The Ted Lindsay Award is given to the most outstanding player selected by the NHLPA. McDavid won the award in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
The Sabres honored Lindsay with a moment of silence before the game.
Keith Gretzky, Edmonton’s interim general manager, was a third-round pick by the Sabres in 1985, 56th overall. Gretzky, Wayne’s brother, spent parts of two seasons in the AHL with the Rochester Americans.