BUFFALO – NHL success can be fleeting, especially for 20-year-olds thrown headfirst into a ferocious postseason race. Today’s hero can quickly become overwhelmed the next day.
With five goals and seven points just six games into his career, winger Marcus Foligno’s already enjoying one of the greatest rookie stretches in the Sabres’ 41-year history.
Only Phil Housley (nine points, 1982-83) and Ray Sheppard (seven, 1987-88) have tallied seven or more points in their first six contests, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“I don’t really see myself a lot with those guys,” Foligno said Tuesday following a team meeting inside the First Niagara Center. “I think those guys are tremendous players – players I’ve looked up to when I’m watching them, seeing what they’ve done on their highlight tapes.”
League-wide, only Anaheim’s Teemu Selanne and Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin have scored five or more goals in their first six appearances.
Foligno’s certainly skating in some rarified air entering tonight’s home tilt against the Montreal Canadiens. It’s helped the Sabres creep to within two points of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
But Foligno, one-third of a dynamic trio beside Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford, isn’t getting too comfortable with NHL life.
Heck, he’s still on emergency recall. He’s living in a hotel and has his possessions, including his car, back in Rochester. He’s driving a vehicle around Buffalo a family friend loaned him.
“Keep the car until things go wrong,” joked Foligno, who scored twice Monday in the Sabres’ 7-3 win in Tampa Bay.
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff cautioned Foligno’s play will inevitably dip.
“Marcus isn’t on an amazing run yet for me,” Ruff said. “He’s put together a good number of games. And there will be a drop off. There always is. There will be maybe a one- or two-game (stretch) where you’re going to need him to find his game again. It happens with all young players.”
Nonetheless, Foligno hasn’t dropped off yet. Factor in the tightness of late-season games and the high stakes of a wild playoff chase, and his brief run is even more remarkable.
“I remember when I first stepped in it was a pretty tough adjustment,” said Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers, the 2009-10 Calder Trophy winner for top rookie. “I can imagine what he’s going through. He’s doing very well. I think exceeding expectations.”
While statisticians have been using Foligno’s six NHL games as a records barometer, he’s actually compiled all his numbers during this five-game recall (he made his NHL debut in December).
Ruff placed him on the left wing with Ennis and Stafford on March 10, and Foligno scored his first NHL goal. He has at least one point in every game, a pair of two-goal efforts and is a plus-7.
“If he keeps it up and stays with it, obviously he’s going to be a great player for a long time in this league,” said Stafford, who has two goals and nine points in the last five games.
The dominant line’s combined for 11 goals, 25 points and plus-23 rating together. At times, it appears the trio can score at will.
“It’s fun to watch them,” Ruff said. “They’re making a lot of good plays. They’ve shown real good creativity in the offensive zone. They really like playing with each other. Every time you put them out there you feel like you’ve got a chance to score.”
Foligno, the 104th pick in 2009, had never been a top scorer until 2010-11, when he tallied 23 times in 47 games.
The improvement he showcased during his final Ontario Hockey League season – he also cracked Canada’s stacked world junior championship club – cemented his prospect status.
Ruff’s already seen Foligno’s game advance again throughout his first professional season.
“He’s skating better, which has helped him get to places,” Ruff said. “He’s been able to play not only the offensive side. He made a couple great plays defensively (Monday) night. He used his legs to get back and break up rush situations.”
Foligno, 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, credits his net prowess to post-practice sessions with Rochester assistant coach Chris Taylor, a former Sabre and AHL star. They spent about 20 minutes each day working on skills around the net – driving and getting the legs going, he said – to improve what Foligno called his “slow feet.”
It’s been paying handsome dividends.
“It’s obviously a great start, so I’m pretty excited,” Foligno said. “I think it’s the confidence I built from my first game being called up here. Playing with Ennis and Stafford has been huge. I just want to keep it rolling and know not to get overconfident, just stay level-headed – know that every game’s going to be huge.”
The Sabres recalled forward Travis Turnbull from Rochester on an emergency basis late Tuesday. The 25-year-old could make his NHL debut tonight.
It’s unknown which player is hurt or sick. Most Sabres stayed off the ice Tuesday.
Turnbull, undrafted out of the University of Michigan, has 12 goals, 27 points, 94 penalty minutes and a plus-5 rating in 53 games with the Americans.
Meanwhile, Ruff said Nathan Gerbe (muscle pull, three games) is “getting better.” He thought the winger would return during the Sabres’ two-game trip.
“He just isn’t responding to treatment and skated on his own but just can’t quite get over the hump,” he said.
Forward Matt Ellis (knee, four games) “is doing a lot better. But he’s not close yet,” Ruff said.
Also, center Jochen Hecht, who’s recovering from his second concussion this season, is skating again.