C.J. Smith has compiled 41 points in 41 AHL games this season. ©2019, Hickling Images

Reeling Sabres showcase new lines, defense pairs

BUFFALO – Sooner or later, coach Phil Housley had to make some significant changes, right? The Sabres have fallen from first overall to three points out of a playoff spot.

Having compiled an awful 8-14-4 mark in their last 26 games, their marathon slump has surpassed the two-month mark. In their last 10 outings, they’re 3-7.

In recent games, the Sabres have shown little interest in playing defense and struggled to score goals. Their power play has also provided little or nothing.

So this morning inside HarborCenter, three days after an embarrassing 7-3 home loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, Housley overhauled everything, changing his forward lines, defense pairs and power-play units.

Why blow it up now?

“We’re 3-7 in our last 10, No. 1,” Housley said inside KeyBank Center. “We tried different combinations within the last 10 games, 15 games. I’m trying to find a balance, maybe a spark, continuity within the lines. Those are all subject to change.”

Most notably, Housley broke up NHL All-Stars Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner, one of the league’s premier center-wing duos much of the season.

“Some things get stale at times,” Housley said. “Maybe you just need a new look.”

Eichel centered left wing Conor Sheary and Kyle Okposo. Skinner, meanwhile, skated at left wing beside center Casey Mittelstadt and Jason Pominville.

The Sabres also recalled high-scoring winger C.J. Smith from the Rochester Americans this morning.

The rest of the lines and D-pairs from left to right:

– Smith, Evan Rodrigues and Sam Reinhart

– Zemgus Girgensons, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson

– Rasmus Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen

– Lawrence Pilut and Zach Bogosian

– Marco Scandella and Jake McCabe.

Housley put Dahlin on the No. 1 power play beside Eichel with Skinner, Reinhart and Mittelstadt up front. On the No. 2 unit, Thompson and Ristolainen manned points with Sheary, Okposo and Rodrigues up front.

“I don’t think you really expect stuff like that,” Okposo said of the changes. “It just happens and you just roll with it. I’ve been around long enough to see stuff like that.”

The last time Housley made such drastic changes to the Sabres, Oct. 19 in Los Angeles, they went on a five-week tear, starting with a 5-1 win against the Kings the next day.

“Everybody had a role, an identity,” Housley said. “But in saying that, I think we were playing the game the right way back then, making good puck decisions, managing our game, our checking detail was really solid, and we got to get back to that.

“You can mix the lines up all you want, but if you don’t manage a game, you don’t have a respect for your own net, you’re going to get the same result.”

The Sabres recalled Smith, who has compiled 18 goals and 41 points in 41 games AHL games this season, after sending winger Remi Elie down Sunday.

Smith certainly did not pout after Sabres sent him down last month following a four-game look. He scored a hat trick in his first contest back and recorded at least one point in seven of the eight games he played.

“That’s just not the type of person I am,” Smith said. “I’m not going to sulk on anything or quit on anything, especially the guys down in Rochester, too. I’m really close with them and really like the coaching staff, so it wasn’t going to affect who I am or my personality at all.”

Check back later for more on the changes and Smith.

The three Sabres who missed Saturday’s session – goalie Carter Hutton (sick), defenseman Matt Hunwick (lower body) and Johan Larsson (upper body) – all practiced today.

Housley said Larsson is day-to-day.

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