BUFFALO – In seven seasons in Atlanta and Winnipeg, two NHL cities a long ways from Massena, Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian never enjoyed the comfort he has felt playing just five hours from home.
As an upstate New York guy, Bogosian feels he “can really relate to a lot of people in the area.” He’s so close to home his father, Ike, drives to Buffalo for almost every game.
“It’s just been a comfort maybe you don’t have when you’re playing in a different state or a different country,” Bogosian said Sunday inside HarborCenter after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s road tilt against the New York Rangers. “I enjoy it. I enjoy New York people, Western New York.”
Bogosian’s comfort in his new surroundings was evident following his Feb. 11 arrival in a blockbuster deal with the Jets. The 25-year-old skated big minutes down the stretch, quickly becoming the Sabres’ new No. 1 defender, a role he was supposed to assume again this season.
But 2015-16 has been a difficult campaign for the former third overall pick. Bogosian suffered a lower-body injury just days into training camp, shelving him for the first 17 games.
Early on, after two months away, Bogosian wasn’t his normal slick self. The injury probably played in his head. He wasn’t zooming all over the ice or showcasing much aggressiveness.
Bogosian finally started to regain his old form earlier this month. In recent games, he’s been playing beside Rasmus Ristolainen, who quickly became the team’s No. 1 defenseman in Bogosian’s absence, on the top pair. Bogosian skated a season-high 28 minutes, 15 seconds in Friday’s 4-0 loss to Detroit.
“You get into a groove,” said Bogosian, who has one goal, seven points and a minus-14 rating in 31 appearances. “When you’re playing minutes like I have recently, I think you feel like more your old self. I’m playing that way.”
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma believes Bogosian’s return has “been gradual.”
“I think there was a portion of time when he got back where he was staying under control or within himself,” he said. “I don’t want to say feeling his way through it, but Zach’s at his best when he’s skating and plays with a little bit of reckless abandon and defends that way as well. I think in early stages he was guarded and making sure he was playing his position.
“I think the last five games he’s probably seen that skating, that jump come back into him being a little bit more assertive offensively and defensively.”
Bogosian said he doesn’t “know if the injury was in the back of my mind.”
“I think anytime you come back from an injury it just takes you a while to adjust to a lot of things,” he said. “It’s a lot to take in right away, but I feel good now.”
The hardest part, of course, was simply getting acclimated to game shape again. Bogosian missed all of the preseason and didn’t return until Nov. 17.
He didn’t play 24 minutes, a number he hit 17 times in only 31 games with the Sabres last season, until Dec. 31, his 21st appearance.
Naturally, Bogosian thinks he thrives with more action.
“You’re into the game more,” he said. “You don’t think as much. I think it’s something when you’re prepared to play those big minutes, then you know you’re hopping over the boards, the game might come a little easier to you. You’re not worrying about this play or that play.”
Bogosian has to worry even less playing beside Ristolainen, who has morphed into star in his third season. Since both are right-handed shots, Bogosian plays on his off side, something that doesn’t bother him. He said he skated on the left side for 20 or 30 games two years ago.
“It seems like we both kind of complement each other,” Bogosian said. “We seem like we’re always trying to find each other, pass each other the puck. It sounds stupid to say, but when you’re always looking to give each other the puck, things seem to break out easier that way.”
Ristolainen has played more than 28 minutes the last three games. Given the Sabres also play Tuesday in Ottawa, their final game before the NHL All-Star break, could Bylsma’s top pair skate a little less tonight?
“I think you do have to be aware of that, be concerned with that,” Bylsma said. “You also have to be in the moment. You want to win the hockey game.”