BUFFALO – Just a couple of weeks ago, the chances of Phil Varone earning another recall to the Sabres appeared to be slim. The center, 25, was struggling with the Rochester Americans, getting scratched thanks to a glut of veterans and a terrible minus rating.
When the Amerks played a game on Dec. 30 at the First Niagara Center, Varone sat out.
But Varone, the Amerks’ leading goal scorer with 10, has recently been the AHL’s club’s best forward. With winger Zemgus Girgensons day-to-day with a lower-body injury, the Sabres summoned Varone this morning.
Varone, who played 28 NHL games last season, will play tonight against the NHL-leading Washington Capitals.
“I know over the last four games he’s been the best forward from our reports,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said.
Bylsma said he wants to utilize Varone’s “skill and ability with the puck” and not just put him in a checking role on the fourth line. The Sabres’ optional skate this morning didn’t reveal any lines.
Varone had three goals and five points with the Sabres last season, but he only registered one assist in his final 17 appearances.
“I think I proved to myself last year the first 10 games here that I can make things happen,” said Varone, a team-worst minus-20 in Rochester. “I think I kind of hit a rut toward the end of the season when I was here. I think I can make plays.”
To read more about Varone’s recent struggles and the Amerks’ veteran problems, click here.
In other lineup news, defenseman Mark Pysyk will play tonight, his first appearance since Nov. 17, a 26-game stretch.
Pysyk, 24, sat two games this week after recovering from his broken foot. Following a 4-1 loss Friday to Boston, Bylsma felt it was time to insert the youngster. He wouldn’t reveal which defenseman will be scratched tonight.
Update: Josh Gorges is missing from warm-ups.
What does Bylsma expect from Pysyk?
“A lot – skating, defending ability with his skating, us being able to get out of trouble and exiting with his skating ability and passing ability,” he said. “That’s why we saw from him before. That’s what we need from him tonight.”
The Sabres face a stiff test in the Capitals, who have won five straight contests, 14 of 16 (14-1-1) and are stunning 33-7-3 overall. Meanwhile, the Sabres are 8-14-2 at home and 17-23-4 overall.
Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin has 26 goals and a terrific supporting cast with centers Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who both have 41 points.
“It makes it more fearful of Ovi because of the way the whole team is playing as a group,” Bylsma said.
Goalie Chad Johnson will start for the Sabres. Braden Holtby, arguably the NHL’s best goalie this season, will start for the Capitals. Holtby is 28-4-2 with a 1.90 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage.
Former Philadelphia captain Mike Richards will make his Capitals debut tonight.