BUFFALO – Ron Rolston wasted no time, throwing Ville Leino right into the fire Saturday afternoon, the winger’s first game since April 7.
The Sabres’ interim coach put Leino, sidelined by a hip injury the first 27 games this season, out for the opening faceoff inside the First Niagara Center.
“It was good for me,” Leino said about starting the game after the Sabres’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators. “It made me feel comfortable. Sometimes you want to have a little bit of a role on the team to feel better. I feel needed. It’s a good thing, yeah.”
The Finn played on the right wing, a place he called his “comfort zone,” beside Steve Ott and center Tyler Ennis, who was returning after Wayne Simmonds’ hit from behind shelved him Tuesday.
Leino looked comfortable while skating 15:55. He moved the puck and operated well down low, two strengths. He assisted on Mike Weber’s goal 8:52 into the game and also played on the second power-play unit.
“I like what I saw tonight from him, puck possession and some of the things that he can do,” Rolston said.
For Leino, who struggled mightily last season as a left wing and center under former coach Lindy Ruff, Saturday felt good.
“I got a little tired at the end,” Leino said. “But I still felt good. It’s a clean slate, a new coach, a new year. So I’m feeling pretty comfortable. If you’re feeling comfortable, it looks like you’re skating better too.”
Leino’s next challenge will come tonight in Washington against the Capitals, when he tries playing back-to-back games.
“(It) will be a new day,” Leino said. “We’ll see if it gets better or worse. I mean, I didn’t feel any pain condition-wise. I think it’ll be fine.”
The Sabres waited to insert Leino, who had been practicing fully for a couple of weeks, so he would be ready for the grind.
“We wanted to make sure he was ready to go and fit as he can possibly be in game-type experience and practice,” Rolston said. “So we hope he can put that game back together back-to-back nights.”
The Sabres could be without Andrej Sekera (upper body) tonight. The defenseman left late in the game. Rolston wants to see how sore he is this morning. Another defenseman could be summoned.
Ennis also hobbled off after blocking a shot late but is OK, Rolston said.
Winger Patrick Kaleta is eligible to return from his five-game boarding suspension tonight.
The Sabres had one healthy scratch, tough guy John Scott.
Under Rolston in Rochester, T.J. Brennan thrived, developing into an AHL star and arguably the league’s most dynamic offensive defenseman.
But that scoring prowess hasn’t translated to the NHL. Brennan played sparingly in the big leagues this season, sitting 17 of the Sabres’ 27 games as a healthy scratch.
Even when Rolston took over on an interim basis Feb. 20, the 23-year-old kept sitting, playing only four games under his old coach.
Finally, the Sabres traded the spare part to the Florida Panthers on Friday for a fifth-round draft pick, reuniting him with Kevin Dineen, Brennan’s AHL coach in Portland.
“It’s a real good opportunity for him,” Rolston said prior to Saturday’s game. “He played with Kevin in Portland, and they have a good feel for what he can do. I’m excited. He’ll have a good opportunity there.”
Brennan was an offensive stud in the AHL, scoring 14 goals and 35 points in 36 games this season. He also had seasons of 16 and 14 goals.
The New Jersey native only had one goal 10 NHL games this season and two goals and two points in 21 career appearances.
Still, Rolston’s confident Brennan’s offensive will show up someday
“I think so, and there were signs of it here,” Rolston said. “It’s just we were in a situation we probably couldn’t use him to the full amount in those capacities with where we were. I think eventually for him that’ll show up. They’re a real good team power play team, too, in Florida, so I’m sure they’ll use him properly.”
Rolston echoed general manager Darcy Regier’s words about 18-year-old center Mikhail Grigorenko, who was returned to junior Friday, a surprising move.
“With the way we were at as a team, it was difficult to give him the opportunity that he probably needed developmentally,” Rolston said. “We just thought for our organization right now, the best thing would be for him to go and play in the playoffs and get playoff experience, and really be … a really big part of that team and be in every situation.”