BUFFALO – To illustrate Tyler Ennis’ growing comfort and tenacity, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma cited a defensive play, not a slick offensive move, the speedy winger made late in Tuesday’s 5-4 overtime win against San Jose.
Shortly after the Sabres tied the contest, they nearly got caught without a defenseman during a change. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Ennis suddenly had to win a puck battle.
“If he doesn’t … there’s a real good chance it’s going into an odd-man rush for them,” Bylsma said following the game. “It was right along the wall along the blue line. He won the puck battle, stayed with it (and) got it back down low. I think that’s kind of been an area he’s improved in his game in the last couple games.”
Ennis, who returned Jan. 16 after groin surgery sidelined him 30 games, has finally found a groove in the last week.
Despite not having a permanent line – Bylsma has been moving Ennis from the fourth trio up to scoring combinations – he has a four-game point streak entering tonight’s home tilt against the Anaheim Ducks at KeyBank Center.
“Skating, jump, compete – I think that’s really been the biggest thing, compete has been at a higher level,” Bylsma said.
Earlier Tuesday, Ennis, 27, helped buoy the rollicking comeback by carrying the puck into the San Jose zone before Evander Kane’s wraparound goal narrowed it to 4-3. The Sharks challenged Ennis was offside, but replays were inconclusive. Ennis also assisted on Matt Moulson’s power-play goal that opened the scoring.
Ennis, a three-time 20-goal scorer, roared out of the gate after missing two months, scoring 19 seconds into his return. But he struggled over the next two weeks.
In demoting him to the fourth line last week, Bylsma said Ennis “had to do a lot more with what he’s bringing.”
So what has changed for Ennis?
“Getting healthier and being determined to make the playoffs,” Ennis said. “Every game now is so important. I have to make plays. I’m not a guy who chips it in and chips it out. I’m a guy that makes plays. I have to think like that. I have to think like I’m a difference-maker.”
When Ennis scored his third goal this season late in Monday’s 2-1 loss in New Jersey – he did a spin-o-rama below the right circle and shot the puck from past the goal line – he appeared to channel former teammate Jochen Hecht, who attempted all sorts of odd-angle shots.
“Jochen was a good player,” Ennis said. “I loved playing with him and (Jason Pominville), we had a good line. Maybe I subliminally picked up some pointers from him, did the sharp-angle, tight shot.”
The Sabres, who rank sixth in the Atlantic Division and 14th in the Eastern Conference with 54 points, play their next seven home games against Western Conference opponents.
With the “loser point” for reaching overtime a non-factor in the standings for those contests, the Sabres could make up some ground.
Right now, with a game in hand, they trail Philadelphia by five points for the final wild card spot. Of course, five teams are ahead of the Sabres in that race. They trail third-place Toronto, which has a game in hand, by six points in the Atlantic.
The Sabres are 12-1-3 in their last 16 home tilts against Western opponents and 10-4-2 overall against the West this season.
Kane, who scored Tuesday’s overtime winner off a nifty feed from Jack Eichel, has scored all 16 of his goals in the last 30 games.
Since scoring his first goal Dec. 3, he is tied for fifth in the NHL in goals and leads the league with 15 even-strength scores. He ranks fourth with 119 shots in that span.