BUFFALO – When Johan Larsson scored his first goal this season Monday, the winner with 3:13 left in the Sabres’ 2-1 comeback victory in Detroit, coach Dan Bylsma couldn’t quite read the center’s body language.
“Whether he was happy, relieved, matter of fact,” Bylsma said Tuesday prior to the Sabres’ 2-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils. “I know he’s been pressing for a while now not having scored. To get that one and to get it at that point in time, it was probably a big sigh of relief is what we saw from him.”
Actually, it was a huge sigh of relief. Larsson rarely showcases much emotion, but after scoring his first goal in 28 games this season and 30 overall dating back to April 6, he couldn’t stop smiling.
“Tough start, absolutely,” Larsson said inside the First Niagara Center. “I’ve had my chances to play, but in and out.”
Larsson finished 2014-15 as the Sabres’ top center, scoring five goals and 14 points in the last 20 contests. But he struggled from the start this season. Bylsma has scratched him three times and briefly moved him back to the wing. He only has four points.
The Swede, 23, probably would’ve stayed in the lineup if he displayed the same tenacity – he’s at his best when he’s a pest – he did late last season. Bylsma has been on Larsson to play more passionately.
“Being a tough guy to play against, getting under the skin of the opposition … that’s a foundation for his game and how he has to play for us,” Bylsma said. “I don’t know if he’s a gritty guy or got a little edge to him, but when he’s playing his best, that’s what he’s doing.”
Bylsma has also been “imploring” Larsson to utilize his shot, one of the team’s best.
“It’s been deadly in practice,” Bylsma said. “So I think he missed a lot of those opportunities.”
After sitting five straight games as a healthy scratch, center Cal O’Reilly made his Sabres debut Tuesday, replacing winger Marcus Foligno, who’s day-to-day with an upper-body injury, Bylsma said.
O’Reilly, 29, is the older brother of Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly. They became the second set of brothers to play for the Sabres at the same time, joining Bob and J.F. Sauve, who played together from 1980-83.
Cal O’Reilly mostly played between Nick Deslauriers and David Legwand on the fourth line, skating six minutes, 46 seconds. The brothers skated together in the final minute.
The Sabres also scratched defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo (healthy).
Sabres goalie Robin Lehner hasn’t experienced a setback in his recovery from the high ankle sprain he suffered Oct. 8, opening night, Bylsma said. The Sabres said Lehner would miss six to 10 weeks then. A “Hockey Night in Canada” report on Saturday said Lehner recently had a setback and would miss another three to four weeks.
Lehner has been on the ice in full gear this week going into his butterfly motion.
“I wasn’t aware of one,” Bylsma said about a setback. “He did a good number of reps going into his butterfly on the ice two days ago and again today. Dealing with a high ankle sprain, there is always … some discomfort. That’s why it’s a long and arduous comeback from that, and as a goalie going into that position an awful lot, it strains it every time you do that.
“He’s had a number of good days on the ice. He’s up to a new level going into the butterfly a few days ago. He did it again today.”
Incredibly, New Jersey is West Seneca native Lee Stempniak’s eighth NHL team and his fifth since 2013-14.
Stempniak, 32, has been one of the Devils’ top offensive threats since parlaying a training camp tryout into a one-year, $850,000 contract, compiling eight goals and 24 points in 31 games. He scored Tuesday.
Perhaps the winger can finally stay put. At this stage in his life, with 21-month old twin girls at home, moving around has become difficult, Stempniak said.
He played for the New York Rangers most of last season before getting dealt to the Winnipeg Jets. When he couldn’t find work, he chose New Jersey’s camp because, among other reasons, general manager Ray Shero brought him to Pittsburgh two years ago when he ran the Penguins.
Having traveled so much, Stempniak has tried to embrace the positives.
“You try not to read too much into it,” he said. “For me, I’ve learned a lot from the first time I was traded. It’s just a matter of jumping in and trying to fit in right away. You have to play to your strengths and your abilities, and that’s why teams seek you out.”
Former Sabres bust Ville Leino had his contract terminated Tuesday by Riga Dynamo, a KHL club in Latvia. The Sabres exercised a buyout on the final three seasons of Leino’s six-year, $27 million contract after he scored zero goals in 58 games in 2013-14.