BUFFALO – In Monday afternoon’s warm-ups, Sabres winger Tyler Ennis said he felt “rusty.” Sitting out 30 straight games following groin surgery, of course, will do that.
So the team’s longest-tenured player could’ve been forgiven if he didn’t showcase some of his usual creativity and speed for a period or two against the Dallas Stars.
Then on Ennis’ first shift since Nov. 7, he pounced on John Klingberg’s errant pass, skated a few strides into the right circle and wired a shot high into the far corner by goalie Kari Lehtonen.
Just 19 seconds had elapsed into the Sabres’ 4-1 win inside KeyBank Center.
“That’s how I planned it, so that was nice,” a smiling Ennis said told a throng of reporters. “That was a good feeling when that went in.”
Ennis, however, wasn’t done utilizing his slick skill set.
With about three minutes left in the first period, he grabbed the puck behind the net and had time and space. Ennis then lifted the puck onto his backhand, raised his stick to the crossbar and quickly tried tuck it in like a lacrosse shot.
The puck fell off, but Ennis appeared to have a stunned Lehtonen beaten.
“I wish that went in,” Ennis said. “I had some room. Pretty frustrated, but maybe one day one of those will go in.”
The move – Michigan’s Mike Legg made it famous by scoring with it in 1996 – shocked Ennis’ teammates on the bench, Sabres center Jack Eichel said.
“We didn’t see it, notice it, at first and we were kind of looking around, ‘Did he really try to do that?’” Eichel said. “He said he kind of just blacked out and tried it. But that’s the element that he brings, that element of creativity and he keeps the opposing team on their heels.”
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said: “That was just kind of a revelation, a flash of his skill.”
It also showed how quickly Ennis generated some confidence in just his 36th game since the start of 2015-16, a season that ended early because of a concussion.
“To have enough presence of mind to try it in a game when there’s grown men out there trying to crush you, just shows you kind of where the comfort level he’s at,” Bylsma said.
Bylsma and Ennis, 27, said the move often works in practice. Ennis said Florida goalie Roberto Luongo stopped his only other attempt at scoring a lacrosse-style goal.
“Third time’s the charm, hopefully,” Ennis said.
Ennis skated 12 minutes, 52 seconds in his 13th game this season, mostly beside center Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo.
Ennis, a three-time 20-goal scorer, only has two goals this season.
“I just got to be confident with the puck and make my plays, be creative,” he said. “When I’m confident, that’s when I play my best. I got a goal early, but I was still pretty rusty. I can play a lot better.”
Ennis said his energy held up.
“My wind was good,” Ennis said. “Energy-wise, I felt really good. I just got to get back in the flow of things.”
With no fourth-line center on the roster, the Sabres recalled center Cal O’Reilly on Monday morning.
O’Reilly, 30, has eight goals and 34 points in 34 AHL games with the Amerks this season. He played four NHL games earlier this season, scoring the shootout winner in the Sabres’ 2-1 win Nov. 19 against Pittsburgh.
“A guy who can step in and play up and down the lineup, can play the power play, solid centerman in the middle of the ice, can take draws,” Bylsma said of O’Reilly. “It’s good to have.”
To make room for O’Reilly, the Sabres scratched winger Nick Deslauriers, who had played nine straight games.
Sabres center Sam Reinhart registered his 19th assist on Eichel’s first goal against the Stars, equaling his assist total from last season in 36 fewer games.
Reinhart has three goals and 13 points in the last 13 contests.
Despite a shaky outing in Friday’s 5-2 loss in Carolina, Sabres goalie Anders Nilsson still has some strong overall numbers – 7-5-4 with a 2.58 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage – in 16 games.
But Nilsson’s home and road statistics vary wildly. On the road, he’s just 2-4-3 with a 3.17 and a .903 in nine outings. At home, however, he’s 5-1-1 with a 1.84 and a .947 in seven games.
Those numbers might mean goalie Robin Lehner will start again in tonight’s road tilt against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Stars coach Lindy Ruff, who led the Sabres from 1997 until 2013, on returning to Buffalo for the fourth time: “It’s still special, but we’re years away from it now.”