BUFFALO – Sabres captain Kyle Okposo said one of his teammates recently mentioned to him how interesting it would be to watch tenacious winger Zemgus Girgensons compete in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“Like, ‘Imagine 28 in the playoffs and just how he would just run through a wall for anybody,’” Okposo said following Tuesday’s practice at KeyBank Center.
Girgensons’ aggressive, straight-ahead style is tailor-made for the rigors of gritty postseason hockey.
“That type of style is worth something in the playoffs,” the veteran said.
Of course, the Latvian, having spent his entire 10-year career in Buffalo, learned that by watching from afar. This season, however, he could finally experience the playoffs firsthand.
If the Sabres win tonight at home against the Carolina Hurricanes, they’ll enter the NHL All-Star break in the Eastern Conference’s last wild card spot.
Naturally, Girgensons, 29, wants to stay in the moment and not look too far ahead. Still, his mind occasionally drifts.
“We’re capable of doing it,” he said of the Sabres making the playoffs for the first time since 2011. “And, yes, I definitely have thought about it.”
Girgensons, the team’s longest-tenured player, has never played meaningful games this late in the season. Remember, the Sabres have finished dead last four times during his tenure.
“Really happy for him,” said Okposo, Girgensons’ close friend and linemate. “He’s been here the longest, he’s seen a lot of different things. I’m just happy we’re at this point. He’s a huge reason.”
Three years ago, when they stood six points out of a spot at the trade deadline, they loaded up for a playoff push and promptly imploded.
For the first time since he was a teenage rookie with the Rochester Americans, Girgensons is in the thick of a playoff race.
“It’s exciting, you know?” Girgensons said. “Just being in that position, the games meaning something, it gives you more energy or you’re more focused. There’s something to play for.”
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Girgensons, an alternate captain, has played a crucial role in the Sabres’ resurgence. His hard-nosed, relentless game sets a strong example for his teammates, some of whom are nearly a decade younger than him.
Okposo often says there’s no analytic that can measure Girgensons’ effectiveness.
“I don’t care what analytic you have, like, playing the right way is something that’s never going to hurt you,” he said. “And it’s always something that when you do get into the big games, you need guys like that to show the other guys how to do it. He’s such a good leader because of everything he does. Just leads by example.”
Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin said: “It’s amazing to have a teammate that’s gone through everything. He’s experiencing this, too, and you see his face every day, he’s a real guy and he’s been working his butt off.”
Coach Don Granato said Girgensons has played “a big, big part” in the Sabres’ progression over the last season and a half.
“He should be proud of that, definitely, that he’s a major contributor to what’s happening here and our culture,” he said.
On the ice, Girgensons, the 14th overall pick in 2012, has established himself as a ferocious checker and penalty killer. By a player’s late 20s, he has usually reached his ceiling. Coaches don’t often talk about growth.
But Granato believes Girgensons, who scored a career-high 15 goals as a rookie in 2013-14, can evolve and reach a higher level.
“He seems to, even on the ice, find ways to add to his game,” he said. “And I still think even though he’s an older player by virtue of experience, there’s still more to come for him.”
Granato said players entering the league are often forced to be conservative because they’re not cast in a scoring role and they fear if they make a mistake, they’ll be demoted or traded.
“You learn to play to not make a mistake,” he said. “And at some point, you learn to do that so well that you either become conservative and never advance your career or you learn that, OK, I have this amazing foundation to work from, I’m no longer a liability and liable to making these mistakes, I don’t have to play conservative anymore. Now I have a base with which I can play aggressive.”
Granato said the Sabres have been pushing Girgensons to do that, telling him he’s responsible enough to get after the opportunities he generates.
Girgensons, who has compiled five goals and 11 points in 47 games this season, said Granato has made him “see hockey in different ways.”
“It’s helped me a ton offensively, defensively,” he said. “I think he’s a tremendous coach.”
Granato said he hopes centers Dylan Cozens and Tage Thompson (upper-body injuries) and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson (lower body) will play tonight. All three players practiced Tuesday.
Update: All three players will play, Granato said.