Sam Reinhart (23) battles Winnipeg's Tobias Enstrom on Jan. 9. ©2018, Hickling Images, Olean Times Herald

Winter Classic helped Sabres’ Sam Reinhart bust long slump

BUFFALO – In his short career, Sam Reinhart had never competed on a stage as grand as Citi Field in New York. Sure, the Sabres winger had played in more meaningful games than the Winter Classic.

But the NHL’s signature regular-season event, an outdoor game watched by millions across North America, is a big deal.

So when Reinhart scored for the first time in 17 games on New Year’s Day, a power-play goal he called “one of the better … ones in my life,” there was a belief it could ignite him.

It turns out that goal in the Sabres’ 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers helped transform Reinhart’s miserable season.

Counting the Winter Classic, Reinhart has scored six goals and 15 points in the last 16 games entering tonight’s road tilt against the Boston Bruins.

The past month has arguably been the best stretch of Reinhart’s three-year NHL career. After scoring the late winner Thursday, his third point in a 4-3 win over the New York Islanders, he has compiled four goals and 13 points in the last 10 contests, including five points in the last two games.

Trace Reinhart’s resurgence back to New Year’s Day. The former second overall pick began that afternoon a colossal disappointment, having mustered just five goals and 11 points through 38 contests.

“I’ve played in some pretty big games, that one maybe not as nerve-racking as some of the ones I’ve been in, but that stage was definitely the biggest,” Reinhart said Thursday after the Sabres ended their four-game losing streak at KeyBank Center. “So to be able to kind of find it there when obviously a lot of people are watching helps the confidence.

“Throughout the season you kind look for a spark, and that’s probably the spot where you can look back and see things started turning around because I did feel good, especially coming off of Christmas two games prior at the Island and Jersey.”

So what has changed for Reinhart over the last five weeks?

Clearly, he’s brimming with confidence. If you watch him, he’s playing more physically and getting to the net, an area where he’s at his best. His strong chemistry with slick center Jack Eichel, his close friend and the Sabres’ only NHL All-Star, is evident.

But Reinhart, who averaged 20 goals and 45 points in his first two seasons, insists he hasn’t changed anything.

“Nothing, nothing,” he said. “It was a pretty frustrating start as it was for a lot of guys. For me right now, it’s a little rewarding and still frustrating knowing I haven’t changed too much in everything – my preparation, my mindset, how I feel with the puck out there. It’s nice to see it finally going in.”

Reinhart, 22, will acknowledge more physicality has helped buoy him, something Sabres coach Phil Housley has noticed.

“He’s making some really strong plays down low,” he said. “He’s been really heavy in the battle down there, been slippery along the wall. I think his wall plays has gotten way better in our own zone. When you do that in your own zone and pay attention to defense, you spend more time in the offensive zone.”

Eichel said: “He’s getting to the net, he’s getting a little more physical, he’s getting tenacious. I think he’s starting to build that confidence.”

On nights Reinhart’s not feeling a groove, showcasing some grit can get him more engaged. So can simply thinking less.

“I think the game well and I think it kind of bites me in the butt sometimes when I think a little bit too defensively,” he said. “I think I do put myself in the right spots. When I am kind of aggressive up the ice, it leads to some pretty good things.”

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The Sabres flew to Boston following Thursday’s game and had Friday off.

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