BUFFALO – St. Louis Blues center Ryan O’Reilly hasn’t experienced a season like this in five years, since he played for the Colorado Avalanche.
For the first time since 2013-14, O’Reilly, 28, has a legitimate chance to reach the playoffs.
Simply contending for a spot has helped rejuvenate O’Reilly, who was beaten down by the losing he endured in Buffalo so much he acknowledged following last season it sapped some of his love for hockey.
The Sabres, of course, never sniffed the postseason in his three seasons here.
Having compiled 26 goals and 69 points in 72 outings, O’Reilly is enjoying a career season and earned his second spot in the NHL All-Star Game. The Blues, meanwhile, have jumped into a playoff spot.
“You look at this team and the way they play, it’s something that really suited, I think, my game,” O’Reilly said prior to recording an assist in Sunday afternoon’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Sabres, his first appearance at KeyBank Center since getting traded July 1. “Playing with some really great players helps a lot.”
O’Reilly skated between Brayden Schenn and David Perron on Sunday.
Despite O’Reilly’s success, the Blues stumbled out of the gate this season. After a 7-9-3 start, they replaced coach Mike Yeo with Craig Berube.
The Blues roared above .500 during their 11-game winning streak in January and February. Saturday afternoon’s 5-1 win over the Penguins in Pittsburgh snapped a three-game losing streak.
“It’s been a long season in the sense that starting off the way we did, struggling, trying to find our game finally finding it, getting back into this hunt and then having a little lull and trying to get back and stay in the hunt,” O’Reilly said. “There’s been a lot of ups and downs. …
“It’s about getting into (the) playoffs and having a chance to win the Cup. It’s nice to be around this group and be a part of that. The mentality that they have is something that’s definitely very refreshing.”
For most of his tenure here, O’Reilly was one of the most popular Sabres. But some fans turned on him following his stunning admission he lost some love for the game. O’Reilly’s words possibly forced the Sabres to deal him.
When the Sabres acknowledged O’Reilly on the video boards during the first whistle Sunday – there was no video tribute – fans mostly cheered. O’Reilly, meanwhile, acknowledged the crowd.
There was a smattering of boos the first two times he touched the puck.
O’Reilly said returning to Buffalo so late in the season made his return feel different.
“Having it the last little bit of the season here and being established in St. Louis, having that as home, I think makes it a little easier where you kind of feel more comfortable,” O’Reilly said.
Sabres coach Phil Housley made one surprising change up front Sunday, inserting Vladimir Sobotka for Jason Pominville.
Sobotka, a part of the O’Reilly trade, was a healthy scratch for Saturday’s 4-2 road loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.
“It’s just where we’re at as a group,” Housley said of why Sobotka, 31, was benched for the first time. “We haven’t gotten any results, so there’s going to be players moving out until we find that chemistry.”
Pominville, 36, is the Sabres’ oldest and most experienced player. He was also a healthy scratch Jan. 30 in Dallas.
“It’s always difficult, especially in a back-to-back situation,” Housley said of scratching Pominville. “I know he wants to make a difference. He’s always doing the right things. He approaches the game the right way. He’s all about the team, so, yes, it was very difficult today.”
Meanwhile, Sabres defenseman Marco Scandella, out with an upper-body injury Saturday, replaced Matt Hunwick.
The Sabres also scratched winger Scott Wilson (healthy).