BUFFALO – Following a rough week in which they lost four straight games and their top two defensemen, the Sabres sorely needed a boost like the return of high-scoring winger Alex Tuch.
The Sabres have struggled without Tuch, losing six of the eight games he has missed recovering from a lower-body injury. They’re in danger of falling out of the playoff race, and now Mattias Samuelsson and Rasmus Dahlin have each suffered upper-body injuries.
So the affable Tuch’s return for Sunday’s practice in KeyBank Center was a welcome sight.
Samuelsson is week to week, according to the team. Meanwhile, Dahlin, his defense partner, is day to day. They both finished Saturday afternoon’s 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Rangers. Samuelsson briefly left the game after blocking a shot in the first period.
The Sabres have also lost goalie Eric Comrie, who’s week to week after suffering a lower-body injury in Friday’s practice.
Sabres coach Don Granato said he expects Samuelsson and Comrie will play again this season. There are 17 games remaining, starting with tonight’s road contest against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena.
Tuch, 26, skated in a contact role during Sunday’s light practice, and he could face the Leafs as the Sabres begin a three-game trip.
“It absolutely is looking like it’s going to be fairly soon, if not tomorrow,” Granato said following Sunday’s session.
After Tuch was injured Feb. 24, Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams said he would be sidelined at least a few weeks. Tuch, who began skating a few days ago, wouldn’t say if he’s ahead of schedule.
“I want to be back as soon as possible and I want to help my team win,” he said. “I’m going to do whatever I can to make that a possibility each and every day. I take great pride in being able to come back as quickly as possible. … I’ll know when I’m ready. “Today was a good day. Obviously, you guys didn’t see me wobble off today, so I’m going to take that as a good sign.”
Granato said Tuch left the lineup “at such a high, high level.” He has spent all season playing right wing beside center Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner, and the trio has emerged as one of the NHL’s most lethal lines.
“It’s unfair, if he comes back earlier than later, it’s going to be tough to get to that high, high level,” Granato said. “Fewer practices, fewer reps, but he’s an incredible athlete so we’re gauging when’s the right time for him that he’s comfortable and we’re comfortable putting him in.”
The Sabres are 2-5-1 since Tuch was injured the night their 3-1 road win over the Florida Panthers moved them into the Eastern Conference’s second wild card spot. Now, they’re seven points behind.
“I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs in the last couple of weeks from the guys,” Tuch said. “It’s been hard … to see.”
He added: “I’ve been itching to get out there with them each and every game.”
Tuch, who blocked two shots against the Panthers, wouldn’t reveal when he was injured.
The Baldwinsville native’s impact can be measured in more than the 28 goals and 62 points he has scored in 57 games this season. His personality and experience – he has played 66 NHL postseason games – also make him one of the Sabres’ most valuable players.
“He is a very big influence,” Granato said. “He’s grown to that to me, even from the start of the year. The last 30 games he’s had have probably been some of the best 30 of his career. I think everybody’s become aware of it that’s watched him play, including us on the bench, the players, his teammates, his linemates. He’s just elevated and by virtue of elevating, he’s elevated us and that’s what we had hoped for out of him, embracing that challenge.”
Skinner said: “We have a lot of young guys, he’s got a lot of big game experience. He’s sort of someone you can lean on, someone that can kind of drag guys into the fight in certain games.”
Rookie Jack Quinn and newcomer Jordan Greenway have filled in for Tuch on the top line.
On the blue line, the Sabres have Jacob Bryson and Kale Clague as extras.
Samuelsson, who turns 23 on Tuesday, missed two games last week with an upper-body injury. Dahlin recently sat out three games with a lower-body injury.
When Samuelsson missed 13 games early in the season recovering from a lower-body injury, the Sabres struggled mightily, going 3-10-0.
When the Sabres signed him to a seven-year, $30 million contract extension prior to the season, Granato called him “the antidote” for his ability to neutralize the opposition’s best players.
Samuelsson has averaged 21 minutes, 54 seconds of ice time per contest.
Dahlin, the Sabres’ representative at the NHL All-Star Game, has enjoyed a dynamic season, compiling 14 goals and 63 points in 61 games. He has averaged a team-high 25 minutes, 44 seconds of ice time per outing.